Has the Secret Service Been Compromised? What We Do Know, What We Don't

There is now significant speculation that the U.S. Secret Service has been "compromised," after the agency failed to provide text messages from January 5 and 6, 2021.

Scrutiny of the agency has intensified after it reportedly provided just one text exchange to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General Joseph Cuffari on Tuesday, after Cuffari requested a month's worth of documents from 24 agents.

The inspector general had already accused the Secret Service of deleting the messages.

Secret service
Marine One lands as a member of the Secret Service stands guard at the White House in Washington, DC. There are unanswered questions about the agency's actions surrounding January 6, 2021. Getty

The Secret Service initially denied deleting the communications, but on Tuesday it emerged that the agency's employees were supposed to back up their text messages during a phone migration that began on January 27, 2021.

If those employees had failed to do so, the messages would have been permanently deleted. That news has led to calls for an investigation into the Secret Service, while many on social media have speculated the agency is "compromised."

Questions for the Secret Service

NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted on Tuesday: "Failure to preserve and produce these messages may be illegal. Prompt investigation is now essential."

"Vital for Americans to know immediately whether United States Secret Service has been dangerously compromised," he added.

Sarah Reese Jones of PoliticusUSA pointed to an article written by her colleague, Jason Easley, that outlined a number of questions for the Secret Service.

"Many points about the Secret Service response do not add up. Why didn't they do an internal review? Why did the Secret Service not back up the text messages before they upgraded devices? Why did some of them attempt to dispute Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony?" Reese Jones wrote, quoting Easley.

The latter was a reference to former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified before the House of Representatives' Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot that former President Donald Trump had attempted to grab the steering wheel of his limousine on January 6.

Following Hutchinson's testimony, Secret Service sources told various media outlets that agents were ready to testify and refute the claim. None of those claims were made on record, however, and members of the agency are yet to testify under oath, so Newsweek cannot independently corroborate the reported counter claims.

The ensuing scandal saw other social media users add to the speculation that the Secret Service had been compromised, but as Newsweek found, that conclusion may be premature based on the evidence at hand. Here's what we do know and what we don't.

What We Do Know

DHS Inspector General Cuffari sent a letter to Congress on July 13 saying that the Secret Service had deleted text messages from January 5 and 6, 2021 after they had been requested by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). OIG said that the agency had blamed a "device-replacement" program.

However, the Secret Service issued a strongly worded statement saying the "insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages following a request is false."

The agency also said that none of the messages OIG was seeking had been lost, and blamed a "reset" of the agency's mobile phones for the loss of certain data other than the messages OIG sought.

However, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, the Secret Service provided only one text exchange to OIG and The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig and Maria Saccheti reported that the agency has determined any other messages from that time have been purged.

The agency's phone migration reportedly began on January 27, 2021, but the Secret Service had already been told twice to preserve documents related to January 6, on January 16 and 25, 2021.

The National Archives has now directed the Secret Service to investigate the potential "unauthorized deletion" of text messages and to deliver a report on the matter in 30 days. The Secret Service has said they will co-operate.

Controversy about the text messages comes amid ongoing concerns about the agency's alleged ties to former President Donald Trump.

Cassidy Hutchinson, who served as an aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified before the House Select Committee in June that Tony Ornato, now assistant director of the Secret Service Office of Training, told her that former President Trump became irate while in his vehicle on January 6. That, Ornato purportedly said, happened after Trump was told he could not go to the Capitol.

Hutchinson testified that Ornato had told her Trump had tried to grab the steering wheel. She also said Ornato had told her the story while in a room with Robert Engel, the Secret Service agent in charge of Trump's detail on January 6.

Following her testimony, reports claimed that Ornato and Engel were willing to dispute Hutchinson's claim, citing Secret Service sources. They have not yet done so publicly or under oath.

On June 28, Carol Leonnig had told MSNBC that some Secret Service agents "took to their personal media accounts to cheer on the insurrection and the individuals rioting up to the Capitol, as patriots."

"I am not saying that Tony Ornato or Bobby Engel did that but they are viewed as being aligned with Donald Trump, which cuts against them," Leonnig added.

"However, if they testify, under oath, 'this is what happened,' I think that is going to be important," she said.

Ornato was White House deputy chief of staff for operations in January, 2021. He had been permitted to leave his Secret Service role temporarily in order to serve as deputy chief of staff, in what has been described as a highly unusual move for the agency.

What We Don't Know

There is a significant amount that we don't know at the moment. It is not possible to say whether any text messages from January 5 and 6 were deliberately deleted or if agents intentionally decided not to back them up.

The Secret Service report to the National Archives could shed light on that.

It's also not clear the extent to which Secret Service agents may have approved of the Capitol riot and further questions remain about events of January 6 itself.

During the Capitol riot, former Vice President Mike Pence refused to get into an armored limousine manned by Secret Service agents, which had led to speculation that the intention was to drive Pence away from the Capitol and prevent him from carrying out his role in certifying the 2020 Electoral College votes.

That theory has not been proven and Pence has not offered a public explanation of his decision not to enter the vehicle, but it is possible he could still appear before the select committee.

It remains to be seen if any agents will dispute Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony under oath, but it is also a possibility as the committee's hearings continue.

For now, though, with the evidence available, it is not possible to conclude definitively that the Secret Service has been "compromised", or if there was nefarious intent behind the loss of communications records, and many unanswered questions remain.

Newsweek has asked the Secret Service for comment.