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What the subpoena for the Secret Service's erased texts means for the Jan. 6 probe

Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., listens as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol on July 12, 2022.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., listens as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol on July 12, 2022.

Updated July 17, 2022 at 11:01 AM ET

The Secret Service has been subpoenaed in the ongoing probe into the riot on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a move that a former federal prosecutor calls aggressive and significant.

The House select committee leading the investigation is asking the federal agency to turn over reportedly deleted text messages from the days surrounding the attack as well as any relevant action reports. The Secret Service has until Tuesday to produce agents' phone records, that some believe may shed light on President Donald Trump's actions during the riot.

"We need all the texts from the fifth and sixth of January," Jan. 6 committee member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif,. told ABC News. "We need to get this information to get the full picture."

Lofgren added that she and the rest of the nine-member panel investigating the insurrection were shocked to hear that the Secret Service does not seem to back up their phone data.

The Secret Service has recently garnered attention after former White House aid Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the Jan. 6 committee. According to Hutchinson, Trump had a heated exchange with his Secret Service detail after demanding to be driven up to the Capitol on the day of the insurrection.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesperson for Secret Service, told NPR that his agency plans to "swiftly" respond to the panel's subpoena though it's unclear what records will be retrievable.

The Secret Service insists the Jan. 6 probe has had its "full and unwavering cooperation"

The erased phone data was brought to light earlier this week by Joseph Cuffari, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service. In a letter to Congress, Cuffari accused the Secret Service of erasing relevant text messages after his office requested such records and generally causing confusion and delays to his office's investigation.

Guglielmi has repeatedly denied that the agency "maliciously" deleted text messages and disputed claims that his agency has been uncooperative.

"The January 6th Select Committee has had our full and unwavering cooperation since its inception in March of 2021 and that does not change," Guglielmi said in a statement to NPR.

According to Guglielmi, some of the department's phone data were lost due to a "pre-planned, three-month system migration" that required agents to reset their mobile phones at the beginning of 2021.

He said that while some text messages were lost by the time of Congress' inquiry, the Secret Service was able to turn over phone data from 20 agents including former Uniform Division Chief Tom Sullivan who had received a text message from the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 6, 2021, requesting emergency assistance.

Guglielmi added that over the last 18 months, the Secret Service has provided dozens of hours of formal testimony from special agents as well as over 790,000 unredacted emails, radio transmissions, and operational and planning records.

What might happen if the Secret Service doesn't comply

If the Secret Service is unable to turn over the deleted messages, the next major question will be if that's intentional, according to Ankush Khardori, a former federal prosecutor.

"There's a big factual difference between the inadvertent loss of communications and a deliberate effort to delete these communications," Khardori told NPR. "Really what you would want to know is what are the Secret Service's record keeping rules, regulations and protocols, did anyone run afoul of them and in the worst case scenario, did someone make a deliberate effort to destroy these communications."

To get to the bottom of what happened, he said Congress may launch an investigation into the Secret Service's record keeping system or call for members of the Secret Service to testify.

Khardori said it's too soon to tell but the Jan. 6 committee's probe into an agency of the executive branch is significant.

"It's not that unusual for Congress to seek information from the executive branch, including through subpoenas, but this is different because it's more public, more assertive, more aggressive and it suggests concern among at least some members of the committee that the Secret Service hasn't been forthright with their answers," he said.

The next Jan. 6 committee hearing is scheduled at 8 p.m. ET Thursday, with a specific focus on Trump's failure to act to stop the insurrection.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.