The events and aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021 have caused the Secret Service to face questions about how it handled matters, what its agents knew, and why text messages related to the Capitol insurrection were deleted. These questions have resulted in the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General launching an investigation into the agency’s record-keeping and more recently, a request by House Democrats for a new IG to investigate. This comes even though the Secret Service cooperated with the January 6 Committee — and committed to continue to do so.
So, while the House committee and the IG inevitably will get answers, what has been lost in the conversation about the alleged missing texts is this: How could the agency, whose agents use iPhone with Verizon service, have overlooked securing these third-party communications in the aftermath of the Capitol riot?
First, like any government agency, the Secret Service has its internal bureaucracy and organizational structure. Reporting to the director are several sub-offices with direct responsibility for lines of business. While the director is responsible for all operations, he is not directly involved in the day-to-day running of sub-offices such as the Office of the Chief Information Officer, where the cell phones, computers and other technological functions are managed.
Before Jan. 6, America was recovering from the impacts of the COVID pandemic and a contentious election in which the sitting president refuted the results. For the Secret Service, the threat picture included domestic and foreign actors who tried diligently to influence the presidential election’s outcome.
Additionally, the Secret Service was preparing for its duty of enabling a peaceful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 20. As has been done since the creation of the National Special Security Event (NSSE) system, Inauguration Day was declared an NSSE by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a period originally designated from Jan. 19-21.
This preparation followed an assessment issued in fall 2020, in which Homeland Security said the election and inauguration had a heightened threat environment and that polarization and the political transition could cause individuals to mobilize to commit violence. The Capitol riot proved that assessment to be correct — and pushed the government to re-evaluate security in Washington, including at the Capitol and during the inauguration.
On Jan. 8, 2021, because of the clearly increased threat, the Secret Service issued a statement saying the presidential inauguration is a foundational element of our democracy and that, as the lead agency for all NSSE security operations, it is responsible for designing and implementing an appropriate security plan to be carried out with partners who have specific areas of management and response, before and during the event. The planning process had begun over a year earlier.
On Jan. 10, the FBI formally warned law enforcement that armed protests were being planned for all 50 statehouses and the U.S. Capitol, and that an unidentified group was calling on others to help “storm” federal, state and local courthouses if Donald Trump was removed as president before President Biden’s inauguration — which meant a direct threat, and not just an implied or unclear threat. This pushed Homeland Security to broaden the NSSE period to begin on Jan. 13, almost a week earlier than initially stated.
Since much of the planning for an NSSE event is geared toward a specific start date, this enhanced threat and exigent circumstances meant the Secret Service had to hasten the security architecture and expand its security bubble to encompass most of the nation’s capital, as well as pathways into Washington.
On Jan. 13, as indicated, the Secret Service took command of arguably one of the largest security operations in modern times — preparations at the Capitol, other federal buildings, and throughout most of Washington. They did this in rapid fashion, without the benefit of the ramp-up time that is customary for such large security operations. By comparison, the G7 Summit held in the United Kingdom that year was secured with about 6,500 police officers whose footprint lasted until just before the summit began and ended when the last attending leader left.
For this NSSE, the Secret Service had to not only mobilize thousands of its personnel from around the world but also coordinate a security plan with 15,000 National Guard troops, thousands of federal, state and local police and tactical officers, and erect several layers of eight-foot-high steel fencing.
The planning included cyber threat analysis, setting up radio transmitters, video and audio capabilities, coordinating with the Federal Aviation Authority for air security, the U.S. Coast Guard for maritime security, and searching and securing grounds that not only Secret Service protectees but also the inauguration attendees would cover.
Adding to the security profile — and following the Secret Service protective methodology of stopping a threat before it’s in front of you — the agency enacted and managed a joint transportation plan that included security preparations and counter-measures at almost every D.C. mass transit hub, airport, maritime route and road, extending into Maryland and Virginia.
While all this was underway, on Jan. 16, 2021, Congress evidently sent Homeland Security a broad preservation and production request, addressed to the DHS Intelligence and Analysis office. On Feb. 26, 2021, the IG sent its request for records to the Secret Service, which informed the IG on March 4 that there was a record-keeping problem.
So, when people ask, why didn’t the Secret Service do a better job of securing its texts after the Jan. 6 riot, the reason might be basic: Its agents were busy protecting the nation’s capital and the transition of power so that everyone in D.C. was safe.
Donald J. Mihalek is retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served on the President’s Detail during two presidential transitions. He also was a police officer and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is currently executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) Foundation.