A Cover Up? Or Just Astounding Negligence? Experts Are Divided On What To Make of Those Missing Texts

(Photo Illustration/Getty Images)

The various investigations into Jan. 6th’s right-wing attack on the Capitol keeps churning up surprising revelations about how federal agencies were being run at the time.

This summer, we learned that text messages from top Trump administration officials had been deleted — news that emerged only after Congress and watchdog groups had spent months seeking them out.

Text exchanges from around January 6, 2021, between 24 Secret Service employees and several high-ranking Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security officials, including former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, were erased as part of what were described as planned data wipes and system migration projects. 

The admission may have gone overlooked by most if it weren’t for the sheer coincidence of it all: Former officials in the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Secret Service, the Defense Department, and ICE all had their messages deleted without backing up the data — which is troubling when you take into account that federal employees are statutorily required to do so. The messages, which could have cleared up a number of lingering questions about the attack, may well be gone for good.

Top Democrats have suggested that the wipes may have been part of a cover-up within these agencies, especially after the DHS’s inspector general withheld information about the text deletions to Congress, and then refused to recuse himself from the investigation when House Democrats began to press him.

TPM has spent weeks speaking with people familiar with how DHS and DoD normally handle records, including former staff at the departments and experts on federal record keeping. And while the text deletions could have been part of a cover-up, the truth could also be much more complicated — and mundane.

“In the vast majority of cases, deleting messages does not amount to being a conscious effort to cover one’s tracks,” said Jason R. Baron, a professor at the University of Maryland and former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration. He told TPM that he believed there was nothing nefarious about the text deletions, or even the fact that they weren’t backed up the way they were supposed to be. 

“There is nothing sinister about what’s going on,” he said. “It is simply a matter of noncompliance with burdensome requirements.”

Those requirements include the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act, both dictating how federal agencies are supposed to manage their data. The statutes are based on an “older paradigm,” Baron said, that shifts the responsibility of record-keeping onto individual employees, stemming from back when most records were on paper.

“[T]here hasn’t been an investment by IT people, including CIOs (chief information officers), in automated archiving of messages, like is now done for e-mail in most places,” he said. “To date, not everyone at the senior executive services (SES) level has focused on this particular aspect of record-keeping until a scandal involving their agency occurs.”

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security issued a policy directive instructing employees on how to back up their own files; the Secret Service issued similar guidance right before they carried out their three-month system migration project.

But the policies don’t seem to have been strongly enforced. A former DHS employee who left the agency during the Obama administration — before the directive — noted that they weren’t required to back up their own records and simply handed their tech equipment over to another employee, while a former DOD employee told TPM that they were instructed to back up their files on an internal server. 

Yet Chad Wolf, Trump’s acting head of DHS, claimed in a recent podcast that he didn’t know that his text messages were missing, or that it was his own job to back up his records. He said that he turned in his equipment but assumed that the records were being dealt with by someone else. 

“I was always told if you worked on anything in a government computer or cell phone, there are records or backups,” he said. “They have it all. I turned it all in, as they directed me to.”

Paul Rosenzweig, a homeland security expert and former senior DHS senior official during the Bush administration, said he was inclined to believe him. “I’m somewhat sympathetic to the claim that he didn’t do the archiving either,” he told TPM. He said that he also didn’t delete his own files on his way out of the department, but left them for someone else to do the archiving.

There could have simply been miscommunication between employees and tech support about who was responsible for backing up their equipment — even after the 2018 directive instructing employees on how to do it themselves. “Records management [has] long been low on federal agencies’ priorities,” said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the independent watchdog group the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). “So problems like lost text messages are not hard to believe.”

But Moulton did find it strange that the deletions were carried on after agencies received several requests for the records, which came soon after the insurrection. 

“Given the high profile nature of the investigation, it is a bit surprising that copies weren’t made and/or that a more careful review of the impacts of the service change wasn’t done,” he said.

Even if this is simply a story of negligence,  negligence at this scale is still problematic, said Freddy Martinez, a senior researcher at POGO. “‘Cover-up’ is a strong word,” he told TPM, but if someone was responsible for record-keeping, then they’re responsible for the loss of those records. 

“If we don’t prioritize fixing the root causes,” he said, “we’re never going to get the answer.”

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