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Too Secret? The Secret Service’s Long, Troubling History of Omerta
Before the text messages’ convenient disappearance, the agency also trashed records related to the JFK assassination.
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The conduct of the Secret Service during the January 6 Capitol attack was highly confusing, but the ongoing kerfuffle over its erratic behavior elides one consistent fact: Our modern-day Praetorian Guard has long been a problematic institution.
As I wrote last week, although the Secret Service’s actions around the JFK assassination were most egregiously suspect, the history of our elected officials’ bodyguards is riddled with scandal and incompetence. Despite this, the agency itself — with its more than $2 billion annual budget — has never been seriously investigated or called out for its failings. And it’s naive to believe that the ongoing and widening text message scandal will change this sad status quo.
In apparent violation of agency policy, as many as 10 agents on the security details of Donald Trump and Mike Pence may have sent text messages on or before the Capitol riots on January 5 and 6, 2021, only to either delete them or to have the agency conveniently “lose” them when they were requested by Congress. Only one message was turned over to the January 6 committee.
Joseph Cuffari, the Trump-appointed inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, has opened a criminal investigation, but since Cuffari may have known about the vanishing texts months before he told Congress, several top Congressional Democrats are asking him to recuse himself. Meanwhile, top agents and security officials — including Anthony Ornato, who was a top aide in the Trump White House while still carrying a Secret Service badge — have lawyered up. (Ornato is still assistant director of training at the agency, “responsible for the oversight, administration, policies, and forecasting of required training and professional development for all Secret Service personnel.”)
This is all highly suspicious, so much so that there are calls for the Biden administration to appoint an outsider to clean house. “You cannot fix this agency from within,” said CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem, an Obama-era DHS official. Even The Washington Post smells a rat. “Maybe the secret service is incompetent,” the Washington establishment’s paper of record wrote July 23, “or maybe there’s something fouler afoot.”
The text messages matter because they could reveal crucial insider details about Donald Trump’s intentions and state of mind on January 6. They could be vital to a criminal indictment and prosecution of the former president — so one easy explanation for the missing messages is that the Secret Service, which has always played favorites with the presidents it’s supposed to protect, is covering for Trump.
That’s consistent with the school of thought that the Secret Service is riddled with Trump acolytes, but the full picture is more complicated. Vice President Mike Pence’s detail, for example, apparently feared for their lives or at least their safety on January 6. Pence appears to have feared for his.
And yet, if members of the Secret Service are covering for Trump or participated in an aborted coup, how do you square that with the bizarre, disturbing, and inconsistent image of Trump trying to wrest control of the presidential limousine when his security detail told him he would not be joining the mob outside (and inside) the Capitol? (And how do we square that with the fact that Ornato himself, via Cassidy Hutchinson, was the source for that anecdote? If Ornato was part of some plot to keep Trump in power, did he have second thoughts — and if so, why?)
In an ideal situation, high-level security jobs require rigor, competency, and fearlessness. The possibility has occurred to me that one reason Trump’s protectors may have destroyed those messages is what they might have revealed about their own inadequacy for the task at hand. As well as their candid thoughts about what was happening, including Trump’s role in the chaos.
I haven’t interviewed anyone about what happened on January 6 — and the likelihood of their speaking to me about it, at least right now, is slim — but I have had the opportunity to interview several retired Secret Service agents and know other investigators with much more experience in interacting with or studying the agency. I can tell you that few agents are anything like the intrepid figures seen in the movies. They’re all too human; plenty have their own biases and prejudices; some show little curiosity or initiative; and some seem frankly barely qualified for jobs where so much is at stake. That’s not being gratuitously mean. It’s being honest.
Others who know more than I do voice similar concerns. Author and Secret Service expert Vince Palamara’s research shows that Secret Service agent Emory Roberts — implicated for, at minimum, poor performance before and during the Kennedy assassination — later was given a top post by Lyndon Johnson. (Others who behaved oddly on November 22, 1963, were also rewarded, and I’ll have more on that in my next book, which is about JFK.)
Having researched the agency for decades, Palamara has probably talked to more agents for more time than anyone outside the service itself.
“The vast majority of the agents throughout history have been good and loyal men with good training and backgrounds (often in law enforcement and/or in the military),” he told me. “However, during the JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Trump eras, perhaps others, several agents harbored either too close emotions to the protectee or they held ill will toward them. Neither is acceptable, especially the latter.”
What is the Secret Service hiding? We may never know. Before the convenient disappearance of text messages relating to January 6, the agency also trashed records related to the JFK assassination.
The culture of omerta may extend to protectees. Former presidents don’t seem to have much to say about their security details. Congress should absolutely continue and broaden its scrutiny of Ornato and pursue whatever digital forensic methods are available to discover as much as it can about who said what to whom on January 6. But if Joe Biden stays mum about the affair, that very silence might speak volumes.
As I process the information coming out about the Secret Service, I cannot help noting how we pay attention to the deficits of law enforcement (read: Uvalde, read: George Floyd) only when it is too late to do anything about them. And our national tendency to “honor our men and women in uniform” creates a powerful disincentive to look more closely into quality standards, values, management, and so forth. But we must ask ourselves: Do we have the right people — with the right skills and temperament — to perform these vital tasks?
It’s especially tough with the “Secret” Service. Though the use of the word “secret” has somewhat obscure historical roots that are no longer relevant, this agency is still very much part of the mysterious and opaque American security state. All the more reason to shine the light of public accountability on its actions when they impact the health of the republic.