A government watchdog group is suing several prominent defense- and security-related federal agencies, including the Secret Service and the Pentagon, over text messages sent by officials regarding the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, which were deleted after oversight officials requested to see them earlier this year.
In a lawsuit filed against the Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense, U.S. Army and National Archives on Wednesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) argues that the texts were illegally deleted and that the agencies didn’t do enough to attempt to retrieve them. The texts, they say, could reveal crucial information about the actions of officials in coordinating a response to the far right attack.
Specifically, the agencies are in violation of the Federal Records Act (FRA), the lawsuit contends, which requires agency heads and archivists to take action through the Department of Justice to retrieve records that have been “unlawfully removed or destroyed.”
These texts could be crucial to the government’s investigation into the attack, potentially containing details about whether or not key Trump administration officials prepared for the violence that day and decisions made in response to the Capitol breach. Communications with the far right Oath Keepers could also have been included in the texts, CREW writes in its lawsuit.
If the texts were uncovered, they could provide an explanation for decisions like the Secret Service’s request to remove then-Vice President Mike Pence from the Capitol before he could certify the results of the 2020 election.
The records “contain evidence of criminal misconduct or other wrongdoing,” CREW wrote. “Their loss would leave a major gap in the factual record, impeding efforts to obtain answers and accountability for an unprecedented assault on American democracy.”
The news that there were missing records related to the attack within these agencies was uncovered by investigative journalists this summer. Texts had been deleted across several agencies, reporters have found, including the Secret Service, DHS, the Army and the Pentagon. Further, they were deleted after federal investigators and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filers had requested to see the texts, raising questions not only about what was in the texts, but also why they were deleted.
The agencies have claimed that the texts are unrecoverable, and political commentators have noted that the deletion of the texts is a major scandal.
“Missing and destroyed federal records from top officials undermine government transparency and accountability, and it is imperative that agencies are complying with record-keeping laws,” CREW senior vice president and Chief Counsel Donald Sherman said of the lawsuit. “The loss of these particular federal records would leave a major gap in the factual record concerning the January 6th attack on the Capitol, impeding efforts to obtain answers and accountability for an unprecedented assault on American democracy.”
CREW asks for the agencies to be declared in violation of the records act and ordered to immediately begin working with the attorney general to recover the texts. The lawsuit comes after CREW has made a number of unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the records or pressure agencies to do so.
Last week, CREW filed a separate lawsuit against the Secret Service, also on the matter of the text deletion. The group had filed a FOIA request in August seeking records concerning a device replacement program that the Secret Service claimed was the reason why the texts are missing. But the Secret Service never got back to the group with the documents, CREW said in their lawsuit.