Secret Service Has 'Enormous' Power to Protect Agency During Scandal

The Secret Service's deleting text messages related to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot is the latest in a long line of controversies in which it has been embroiled in recent years, a pattern largely attributed to the erosion of the agency's leadership that experts said took a greater nosedive under the Trump administration.

Carol Leonnig, a Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist with the Washington Post and author of Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, told Newsweek that the erased messages are part of a culture that has long been tolerated within the agency, one in which mistakes are covered up rather than investigated and corrected.

The Secret Service being intimately close with the president and the power of the White House has cultivated an arrogance that the agency is above the law, Leonnig said.

When it was founded by Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to combat the then-prolific counterfeiting of U.S. currency, the Secret Service was under the Department of the Treasury. It wasn't until 2003 that George W. Bush moved the agency out of the Treasury and into his newly established Department of Homeland Security (DHS), adding another layer of bureaucracy that author Jeffrey Robinson argues has led to the deterioration of the Secret Service.

Secret Service Power SCandal
The Secret Service has recently become embroiled in another controversy after it was revealed that text messages related to the Capitol riot had been purged from the agency's records. Above, Secret Service members walk alongside the presidential motorcade during the Inauguration Day parade for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2021. Seth Herald/AFP

Robinson co-wrote Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service with longtime friend Joseph Petro, who served for 23 years as a special agent in the Secret Service. During four of those years, Petro stood by the side of former President Ronald Reagan, whose Presidential Protective Division (PPD) has often been hailed as the gold standard.

As far as discipline within the Secret Service goes, Robinson told Newsweek that it is "absolutely down to the director" as to how things are handled, suggesting that James Murray—who was appointed to be the director of the agency by Donald Trump in 2019 and who held the position on the day of the Capitol attack—should largely shoulder the blame for much of the confusion and lack of oversight surrounding the January 6 texts.

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari recently revealed that texts related to the January 6 Capitol riot were purged. In response to congressional subpoenas, the Secret Service said the messages could not be recovered and blamed their deletion on a technology update.

"You hear their excuses. Their excuses changed 12 times. 'Oh, it was part of a normal thing replacing phones' and then no, 'it was a normal thing doing this and that,' but it's only January 6," Robinson said. "If they were gonna change phones and texts were lost, why weren't they lost from September 23? Why was it January 6?"

Leonnig added that it's not just Murray who has the ability to protect agents within the service. She said that any supervisor in the agency has "enormous power" to help one of their subordinates avoid punishment.

Because the culture of the Secret Service prioritizes secrecy to protect the president, Leonnig said that it opens up room for abuse of that secrecy. The agency may choose to conceal information that reveals its shortcomings, hurt its brand or humiliate the Secret Service.

In the last few months, the agency has had to face numerous crises related to its staff.

In April, news broke that Secret Service agents allegedly accepted gifts from two men impersonating law enforcement officers. One of the men offered to buy a $2,000 assault rifle for an agent who was assigned to protect first lady Jill Biden. The scandal resulted in the suspension of four agents.

On July 13, the agency announced that one of its employees, who was working in Israel ahead of President Joe Biden's Middle East trip, was sent back to the U.S. after being arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman at a market in Jerusalem. The Secret Service did not provide any details about the encounter but said that it did not involve sexual assault and that the agency would investigate the incident.

Leonnig said that the Secret Service's scandals continue to pop up because neither the president nor the DHS Secretary—who are the only ones she said can reform the agency—has addressed the culture of minor or nonexistent consequences for agent misconduct. She added that the lack of reform has left "the best and most devoted agents frustrated and struggling to fulfill their mission."

"Like any big organization, what's known to the public is what the organization feels comfortable telling the public," Robinson said. "The Secret Service must be up in arms that suddenly someone's discovered these emails are missing. They would have been just as happy if no one ever knew about it."