For Probably Totally Innocent Reasons, the Defense Department Also Deleted the January 6 Text Messages of Top Trump Officials

Last month we learned that the US Secret Service had purged a whole bunch of its January 6 text messages in the days after the attack. Given that both (1) the organization had been ordered to preserve them (2) it takes serious effort to permanently delete any electronic communications, let alone those that are government records and (3) said communications could presumably shed a whole bunch of light on what was going on the day Donald Trump incited a violent mob to attack the Capitol and put then vice president Mike Pence‘s life in grave danger, the whole thing seemed pretty damn shady. Conspiratorial even! Still, it could have been an honest mistake, and not a situation wherein someone was trying to cover their tracks or the tracks of the POTUS whose undemocratic actions had resulted in the deaths of numerous people. On the other hand, that argument becomes increasingly difficult to make upon learning that it wasn’t just the Secret Service’s messages that magically vanished into thin air.

CNN reports that the Department of Defense also wiped the phones of departing high-ranking Department of Defense and Army officials at the conclusion of the Trump administration, “deleting any texts from key witnesses to events surrounding the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, according to court filings.” We know this because government watchdog American Oversight sued the DOD and Army to obtain the January 6 records of the former acting secretary of defense Chris Miller, former chief of staff Kash Patel, and former secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy—as well as other top Pentagon officials—and that was the response: that all communications are gone. (American Oversight reportedly filed its initial Freedom of Information Act request just days after the attack.)

CNN notes, Miller, Patel, and McCarthy are all seen as crucial January 6 witnesses, given that they were involved in the DOD’s response to sending in the National Guard as the violence was unfolding. (Miller declined CNN’s request for comment; Patel and McCarthy did not immediately respond. There is no indication the three deleted the records themselves.) Troops arrived at the Capitol at approximately 5:40 pm, after most of the violence had abated. While Trump has claimed that he “immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to secure the building and expel the intruders,” we’ve known for some time now that he watched the attack unfold on TV and did nothing to stop it. Last week, the January 6 panel released testimony from Miller in which he denied that Trump had ever given a formal order to deploy 10,000 troops to the Capitol. “I was never given any direction or order or knew of any plans of that nature,” Miller said.

In the wake of the revelation re: the deleted DOD messages, Paul Ney, former general counsel for the Department of Defense, told CNN its report was the “first I’ve heard about DOD litigation in which there is any issue with the cell phone I turned in when I left DOD on January 20, 2021.” He added: “I did not wipe the phone before I turned it in (or ever that I can recall). When I turned the phone in, I did not know what was going to be done with that device nor do I know what was actually done with that device after I turned it in. If DOD represented in litigation that the device was wiped after I left DOD on Inauguration Day, I believe that is very likely what happened and when it happened, but I do not know why.”

American Oversight has demanded a “cross-agency investigation” by the Justice Department to investigate why and how extremely relevant communications were lost. “It’s just astounding to believe that the agency did not understand the importance of preserving its records—particularly [with regards] to the top officials that might have captured: what they were doing, when they were doing it, why they were doing, it on that day,” Heather Sawyer, the group’s executive director, told CNN. Sawyer added that a federal records law that says the government must preserve records that have “informational value of the data in them.” “I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone could argue with a straight face that communications happening between these top officials on January 6 would not have the type of informational value that the Federal Records Law is meant to reach,” she told the outlet.

Last month the Secret Service said its messages were lost due to a previously scheduled phone migration that began January 27, 2021. Which doesn’t explain (1) they didn’t pause the migration and (2) why they didn’t heed the order that came through on January 16, 2021, not to delete anything. (That the agency claims rank and file employees were personally “responsible for appropriately preserving government records that may be created via text messaging” is a whole other thing.)

A former DOD official who worked in a previous administration told CNN that it was hammered into new hires “that their work devices were subject to the Presidential Records Act and indicated their communications would be archived.” To that end, in 2022, most people assume that communication they send, outside of ones transmitted via carrier pigeon, live on forever in some form or another.

Appearing on CNN on Tuesday night, January 6 committee member Zoe Lofgren said the new revelations are of “tremendous concern.” Which would be putting it mildly!

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