I spent about 25 years working in “information technology,” commonly called IT. I was mostly self-taught; this was back when there were actually things called “manuals” and even some things called “books.” My expertise is pretty broad, but not necessarily deep in all areas. Still, the underlying principles of how things work don’t change, including good security practices. So, with all that said, I have this to say:
The claim by the Secret Service that their January 6th text messages were lost due to a standard phone replacement process stinks like a rotten fish on a hot day.
First of all, SS employees were told in December 2020 by their IT department to preserve text messages before their phones were replaced in late January. Then, in mid-January 2021, the agency was told by various outside groups, including Congress, to preserve any documents (which would include text messages) related to the events of January 6th.
The supposedly-planned process for replacing the phones started on January 27. According to the SS, all data on the phones being replaced was lost – including any text messages. And thus, they have no text messages to share.
I have no doubt that the data on the phones was destroyed. Without going into the details, there are multiple processes used to “reset” a phone – including a process where the security keys are changed remotely, rendering everything on the phone an unintelligible mess.
BUT – all text message systems use a process called “store and forward,” which means a text message is stored on a server somewhere until it can finally be sent to the recipient. Different phone services have different rules about how long they keep the text message after it is delivered, so those messages from 18 months ago may or may not still be on those servers. They were almost certainly still on the servers, though, when the SS was told to preserve records.
AND – those are government records, which are required to be preserved by law. So whomever the Secret Service uses to provide their cell phone service should know that ALL text messages should be preserved and sent to the National Archives.
AND – the Secret Service was told to preserve all documents related to January 6th BEFORE the planned equipment replacement.
Thus, I see one of three possible explanations for this situation:
- Someone in IT messed up, in a big way. There are people calling for the IT department in charge of the replacement process to be fired. Frankly, I’m not sure what more the IT department could have done. They sent out instructions over a month before the replacement process, telling agents to preserve important messages AND how to do so. Then, they carried out their planned process to replace thousands of cell phones. They’re not going to ask each agent “did you remember to preserve important data?” like the agents are six-year-olds. So, I don’t buy the “negligence of the IT department” as an explanation.
- That leaves individual agents. The document demand from Congress says “any text messages related to the events of January 6th.” Did the agents who had relevant messages decide to delete the messages rather than preserve them? Who are those agents, and what is their explanation for not preserving those messages? It seems entirely plausible to me that any or all agents in or near the 1/6 events could have said, either to themselves or in a group, “I’d better delete these messages and pretend they never happened.” Those agents need to be questioned under oath.
- Or, someone higher up in the agency decided to use the replacement process as a way to cover up what happened. Unless the person or persons planning that were technologically ignorant (certainly possible), they would also know that the messages were stored by their carrier. So they would also have to order the carrier to destroy the messages on their servers.
If the text messages from that day are really and truly gone from everywhere they might be, it seems to me to go way beyond an accident. It looks like a cover-up, either by individual agents or by the agency itself. And Congress and/or the Justice Department needs to get to the bottom of it.
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