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Secret Service erased Jan. 6 texts after officials requested them, watchdog says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A watchdog says the U.S. Secret Service deleted many of the text messages sent during a two-day period surrounding the January 6 attack. The inspector general, who oversees the agency, told Congress that the messages were deleted after his office asked for the texts. This comes after recent testimony before the January 6 panel in which a witness raised new questions about the Secret Service's role on the day of the deadly siege. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales joins us now with more. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so tell us more about these texts.

GRISALES: Right. The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security - this includes the Secret Service - wrote a letter to Congress this week detailing that they had requested these text messages for that two-day period, as you mentioned, on January 5 and January 6 of last year. However, this inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, said the department notified them that, quote, "many of these Secret Service messages were erased as part of a device replacement program." Cuffari noted in this letter, which was sent both to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees yesterday, that the messages were deleted after the watchdog had requested records of electronic communications from the Secret Service. This was part of the watchdog agency's own evaluation of the events of January 6.

CHANG: And how is the Secret Service responding right now?

GRISALES: In a tweet, a spokesman for the agency said they, quote, "take strong issue with these categorically false claims, and they will be responding in more detail later."

CHANG: Huh. OK. Well, the Secret Service - I mean, they were pretty much front and center when Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House aide, testified last month at one of the January 6 committee hearings.

GRISALES: Right.

CHANG: Can you just explain - like, how do these deleted texts tie into that?

GRISALES: Right. These messages could have been helpful in confirming conflicting accounts of then-President Trump's actions after Hutchinson's testimony. She had detailed in that public hearing that Secret Service was aware that rioters were armed at the rally at The Ellipse on the day of the attack. And if so, that potentially signals the agency's lack of coordination with other law enforcement groups. Also, she shared a story of a standoff between Trump and his agents that also included an alleged physical altercation in the presidential limousine that day, as Trump was determined to march to the Capitol, but was stopped by agents. Anonymous sources around the Secret Service have reportedly disputed some of Hutchinson's testimony about this physical altercation, but this is an account, again, that she gave under oath. However, that's also sparked discussion about additional evidence of interest to the House select January 6 committee, and these text messages may have been able to clear up this confusion.

CHANG: Huh. So what do you think are the next steps here for Congress?

GRISALES: Right. In the letter, Inspector General Cuffari told Congress he was offering to brief members on these new developments, and a spokesman for the House Homeland Security Committee told me they are now expecting a briefing with him. And, as it turns out, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson. Thompson also chairs the January 6 committee, so this will likely add a new line of investigation for the panel to consider, even as it's looking to wrap up its hearings next week for potentially the summer. But as we've heard again and again from these January 6 members, it's possible they could add additional hearings in the coming months and include much more extensive details about their findings in a final report this fall.

CHANG: That is NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. Thank you, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.