It Looks Real, Real Bad

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: A member of the United States Secret Service watches as President Donald J. Trump speaks about "Operation Warp Speed" in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday, Nov 13, 2020 in Was... WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: A member of the United States Secret Service watches as President Donald J. Trump speaks about "Operation Warp Speed" in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday, Nov 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS

The Secret Service text destruction story has been a sort of slow burn. As Kate Riga and I discussed in the new podcast episode, I think this is due to the fact that a lot of people in government and media are having a hard time making sense of the story. They keep wanting to hear more because the current facts don’t make any sense. More to the point, both the guilty and the innocent versions of events seem equally absurd. Is it really possible that the Secret Service would purge its records of Jan. 5th and 6th and somehow not think anyone would notice or care? It seems too over-the-top and brazen even for some of the most cynical of observers. At the same time, the Secret Service’s explanation seems even more absurd. Let’s take a moment to walk through what that story is.

According to the Secret Service, it’s leadership decided in December to switch to a new text/phone/data system. This required a “reset” in advance of the migration. The actual migration was completed and data was purged on Jan. 27, 2021, a week into Biden’s presidency, roughly three weeks after Jan. 6th and two days after the House delivered its article of impeachment to the Senate. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, the migration process required deleting a lot of data in advance of the migration. That’s not generally how migrations work. When you migrate that means everyone or everything gets from point A to point B. But whatever. The Secret Service asked individual employees to decide which texts should be saved and then to upload those texts to a remote server. Many or most simply never did that. And even though many or most agents never complied with these instructions the mass purging of data went ahead any way.

One other point to consider: the Secret Service has sought to rebut skepticism by saying this was part of a plan decided on “months” earlier. But the reports suggest the actual decisions to do the migration and on which new service would be used were made in December of 2020. Obviously strange coincidences can happen. But December 2020 was hardly a fallow moment in the history of the United States. It was during an escalating crisis over the results of the 2020 election. It’s a curious time to be scheduling the mass purging of government records days after the next president was to be sworn in.

One thing that is left unclear is just what instructions the individual agents were given. I’m fairly computer adept and I’d struggle to know how to separate out one subset of texts on my phone and then back up that subset of texts to a remote hard drive. And not to put too fine a point on it but we’re talking about a bunch of young and middle-aged cops. They’re not techs. But the critical point comes out in today’s Washington Post article. The agency said it instructed agents to preserve the documents on their phone and began the “migration” process two days later. But in this case, “migration” appears to have meant erasing legacy documents. If they were actually migrating all the data all of this would be moot. Critically, “individual agents were allowed to decide which texts should be preserved, and the rest were wiped.”

To call this a document retention policy is simply absurd: a “migration” process that seemed largely to involve purging data; a process with apparently no redundancy; a plan which apparently relied on individual agents to decide which of their texts should be preserved as government records — a task which they were unequipped to perform, legally, ethically and technologically. It looks less like a tech upgrade plan than a framework in which to manage the wholesale destruction of government records.

Twenty to twenty-five years ago I reported on stories which involved just unreal levels of incompetence and outdatedness in the government management of electronic records. This isn’t just being hidebound. The U.S. government can’t simply fire up the latest software or devices. They have to be compliant with various governmental security and data retention protocols. And also — this was 25 years ago. That might as well have been the Middle Ages in terms of the Internet and government IT policy. There’s no similar excuse today. The only plausible or conceivable “innocent” explanation for this is that the Secret Service is such a cowboy culture (it is) that it just operates with a total indifference to countless government regulations and laws about how the federal government must operate.

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