WASHINGTON — The name says it all — the Secret Service is meant to operate in the shadows as an apolitical agency protecting US officials and their families. Like oxygen, it should be vital but largely invisible.
So when it emerged that Secret Service text messages linked to last year’s deadly attack on the US Capitol had been deleted and Vice President Mike Pence disagreed with the agents on the spot, serious questions of integrity and politicization arose. Was the agency hijacked by Donald Trump?
“It fuels the perception that they’ve taken sides in the political war,” said Paul Rosenzweig, who helped oversee the service during the George W. Bush administration.
The service acknowledges that some texts from 24 of its employees from January 5 and 6, 2021 were erased despite federal laws requiring them to be retained, but says it was an accident that occurred during a shift to the new cell phones. This, despite at least two prior requests from Congress that it retain documents related to the attack.
The case was subject to a multitude of investigations – first by the Secret Service itself – until the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, took control of investigation. The National Archives and Records Administration wants a report within 30 days. A congressional committee can convene hearings. On Friday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin asked the Justice Department to investigate.
Meanwhile, the episode renewed accusations that the Secret Service allowed itself to be co-opted by Trump. The inspector general leading the Homeland Security investigation, Joseph Cuffari, is a Trump appointee who waited months before telling the House committee that some of the messages he wanted were missing.
Cuffari himself has been the subject of an independent investigation into his handling, and several lawmakers have called for him to be replaced in the investigation. Cuffari did not alert Congress for months to the missing Secret Service texts.
“Inspector General Cuffari’s actions in this case, which follow other troubling reports of his conduct as Inspector General, cast serious doubt on his independence,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, DN. Y., chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and the one investigating the Jan. 6 riot, wrote in a letter released Tuesday.
Cuffari’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Continuing concerns: Secret Service Chief James Murray is also appointed by Trump. And Tony Ornato, a veteran agent at the center of an alleged incident involving Trump in his vehicle on Jan. 6, had been promoted by the president to a top political post in the White House.
“Of course it’s very suspicious – they’re from 5th and 6th – Wow! What a coincidence,” said Joseph Petro, a 23-year agency veteran and former top executive who co-wrote a book on the Secret Service, about the missing texts. Regarding the agents’ proximity to Trump, he added, “In a way, they caused it themselves.”
Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement Wednesday that agents protect presidents “regardless of political affiliation or sentiment” with “integrity and honor.”
The agency, he said, “will continue to cooperate fully with the January 6 committee which has a duty to investigate the untold events of that day.”
The Secret Service is celebrated in American culture for its heroic deeds, real and imagined. Agent Jerry Parr pushed Ronald Reagan into the presidential limo during a 1981 assassination attempt, likely saving his life. Clint Eastwood’s fictional agent Frank Horrigan jumped before an assassin’s bullet in the 1993 Hollywood thriller “In the Line of Fire.”
In fact, however, this isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the agency. He has a proven track record in presidential privacy, including the sexual affairs of John F. Kennedy.
Some would say it was a different time. Nonetheless, recent stumbles are more like Keystone Cops. In 2011, the Secret Service did not realize shots had been fired at the White House until maintenance personnel later noticed gunshot damage, including a cracked ballistic window on the residence of the second floor of President Barack Obama. In 2014, a man armed with a knife jumped the fence and entered the executive mansion through an unlocked front door. In 2017, another fence jumper evaded capture for 17 minutes, pressing his face against White House windows and shaking a doorknob while Trump watched TV in the upstairs residence.
Other embarrassments include two senior officers who crashed into a White House barricade during an active bomb investigation in 2015, after drinking at a party. In 2012, agents hired prostitutes on a presidential trip to a Summit of the Americas rally in Cartagena, Colombia.
The redactions surfaced after compelling testimony before the House panel on Jan. 6 by former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. Under oath, she said Ornato told her on the day of the uprising that Trump blew up on Secret Service agents who refused to take him from a Capitol rally to join the protesters and that he s rushed behind the wheel of his armored vehicle.
People close to Ornato anonymously challenged the account but not under oath. He also did not publicly respond to questions about it.
Aides to Pence also told the panel that the vice president refused Secret Service requests to get into his armored vehicle during the attack, fearing it could be swept away. It raised questions about whether his removal could have figured into plans to interfere with Joe Biden’s certification of victory.
As the committee searched for agency texts, Cuffari informed the panel that the posts of 24 employees on January 5 and 6 had been deleted.
Cuffari has been criticized for delaying the release of the results of an investigation showing widespread sexual harassment among Homeland Security personnel and waiting at least nine months to raise the alarm over lost texts, according to the Project on Government Oversight. .
The texts episode shed light on Ornato’s unusual role, which rose from Trump’s Secret Service chief to White House deputy chief of staff. He then returned to the Secret Service as Deputy Director in charge of training.
Norman Eisen, ethics czar in the Obama White House and special adviser to House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment trial, said the appointment crossed the lines between the independent and professional role of the Secret Service and partisan politics.
“This sets a terrible example of political influence for other members of the Secret Service,” Eisen said. “I would never allow that.”
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