January 6 text messages erased from phones of top Trump Pentagon officials

The acknowledgment that Pentagon officials’ phones had been wiped first came to light in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that American Oversight filed against the Department of Defense and the military. The watchdog group is seeking Jan. 6 records from former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, former Chief of Staff Kash Patel and former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, among other prominent Pentagon officials — having filed initial FOIA requests just days after the Capitol attack.

Miller, Patel and McCarthy were all considered crucial witnesses to understanding the government’s response to the Jan. 6 Capitol storming and former President Donald Trump’s reaction to the breach. All three were involved in the Department of Defense’s response to sending National Guard troops to the US Capitol as the riot unfolded. There is no suggestion that the officials themselves erased the files.

The government’s claim in the documents that officials’ text messages from that day were not retained is the latest blow to efforts to bring transparency to the January 6 events. It comes as the Department of Homeland Security also comes under fire for the apparent loss of Secret Service messages that day.

Miller declined to comment. Patel and McCarthy did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to CNN’s request. The U.S. Army’s public affairs media relations chief, Col. Cathy Wilkinson, said in a statement that “our policy is not to comment on ongoing litigation.”

American Oversight is now requesting an “interagency investigation” by the Department of Justice to investigate the destruction of the materials.

“It is simply astounding to believe that the agency has failed to understand the importance of preserving its records, especially [with regards] to senior officials who might have captured: what they were doing, when they were doing it, why they were doing it that day,” Heather Sawyer, executive director of American Oversight, told CNN.

Sawyer said his organization learned that the records were not kept by government lawyers earlier this year, and that acknowledgment was later recorded in a joint status report filed with the court in March.

“The DOD and the Army have informed the applicant that when an employee separates from the DOD or the Army, they return the government-issued phone and the phone is erased,” the government said in the filing. “For guards who are no longer with the agency, the text messages were not retained and therefore could not be searched, although it is possible that particular text messages were saved in other locations. other systems of record such as email.”

The acknowledgment that the records were not retained took on new significance following the ongoing scandal over the loss of Secret Service agents’ texts from January 6.

“It just reveals a general lack of taking seriously the obligation to preserve records, to ensure accountability, to ensure accountability to their partners in the legislature and to the American people,” Sawyer said.

The Secret Service said his texts were lost following a previously planned data migration of his agents’ cellphones that began on January 27, 2021, exactly three weeks after the attack on the US Capitol. Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari first learned that these texts were missing as early as May 2021, CNN previously reported.

The pattern in multiple agencies prompted his organization to write to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is already facing a request from congressional Democrats to take over the DHS investigation into the missing Secret Service texts.

“American Oversight therefore urges you to investigate the actions of the DOD in authorizing the destruction of documents potentially relevant to this important matter of national attention and historical significance,” the letter reads, while citing appeals from Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. for the Department of Homeland Security to be investigated for similar outages, the letter, shared with CNN on Tuesday, said.
After filing FOIA requests with the Department of Defense and the Army, US surveillance says the Pentagon acknowledged the request on January 15, 2021. American Oversight then filed a lawsuit in March to force the disclosure of the records. In addition to FOIA obligations American Oversight says the Pentagon ignored in failing to preserve records, Sawyer also pointed to another federal records The law also requires the government to preserve records that have “informative value of the data they contain”.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone could say outright that the communications between these senior officials on January 6 would not have the kind of informational value that the federal records law is supposed to achieve,” Sawyer said. American Oversight is seeking records for several other Pentagon officials – some of whom remain in government service.

“For custodians still with the agency, the military has initiated a search for text messages responding to FOIA requests and estimates to complete their additional search by the end of September,” the Justice Department said in a statement. the July joint file.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.

What the Pentagon was hearing from the White House as the Capitol attack unfolded was the focus of the House inquiry on Jan. 6, and lawmakers say addressing security flaws that day is the one of the objectives of their investigation.

The House Jan. 6 Committee released testimony last week that Miller gave to the panel denying that former President Donald Trump gave him a formal order to have 10,000 troops ready for deployment to the Capitol on Jan. 6. .

“I never received any direction or orders or knowledge of any plans of this nature,” Miller said in the video.

A spokesperson for the Jan. 6 committee declined to comment on Pentagon-related records.

A former Department of Defense official from a previous administration told CNN that it was ingrained in new recruits during their onboarding that their work devices were subject to the Presidential Records Act and indicated that their communications would be archived. The source said it was assumed that when they handed in their devices at the end of their employment, all communication records would be archived.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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