Pentagon 'wiped' phones of top Defense officials despite request for Jan. 6 texts and emails

In a court filing, the Pentagon and Army said when an employee leaves the government, “the phone is wiped."

WASHINGTON – The Defense Department revealed in court records it erased text messages and emails sent and received around the time of the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, from the phones of top Pentagon officials.

The advocacy group American Oversight sought the texts through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, to learn more about the attack. The group requested emails, texts and calendar invitations for former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, his former acting chief of staff Kash Patel and former Defense Department general counsel Paul Ney.

But in a court filing July 12, the Pentagon and Army said when an employee leaves the government, “the phone is wiped.” American Oversight had requested the records less than a week after the riot, which the Pentagon acknowledged, but the top officials left the government at the end of former President Donald Trump's term Jan. 20, 2021.

"For those custodians no longer with the agency, the text messages were not preserved and therefore could not be searched, although it is possible that particular text messages could have been saved into other records systems such as email," Pentagon lawyers said in their filing.

The disclosure about the deletions followed revelations the Secret Service erased texts from the phones of 24 staffers sought by House committees investigating the attack. The missing texts prompted two House chairs to call for the ouster of the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, who launched a criminal investigation into the deleted texts. 

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January 13, 2021: National Guard troops await orders as security around the U.S. Capitol is heightened on Jan. 13, 2021 as the House of Representatives reconvenes to debate Donald Trump's impeachment following Pro-Trump riots on the Capitol building.

American Oversight sent a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging an investigation of the purge of records, despite congressional requests to preserve the records.

“It now appears as if multiple federal agencies may have failed to preserve records surrounding the January 6th attack on the Capitol,” Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight, said in a statement. “There are still too many open questions about the role of the Pentagon, Secret Service, and others before and during the attack.”

The Justice Department declined comment on the request. Miller also declined comment.

But former government workers were surprised records were erased with a change in administrations.

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“This is nuts,” Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump administration spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said in a tweet. “When I was at DOD everything on my government phone & laptop was required to be archived. The idea that we just wipe federal records when a presidential transition takes place is an affront to government transparency.”

American Oversight also requested records from Trump administration Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy; Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff; Army general counsel James McPherson; and Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, Army staff director.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller speaks during a meeting with Minister of National Defence of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis Nov. 13, 2020 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

Pentagon records are key to investigations of the Capitol attack because of disputes about delays in the deployment of National Guard troops to reinforce police defending the building.

American Oversight requested the records Jan. 12, 2021. The Defense Department acknowledged the request Jan. 15, 2021. But the administration ended Jan. 20, 2021, and the officials left the government.

D.C. city officials pleaded with the Pentagon to deploy National Guard troops, which arrived after 5 p.m., after a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump subsided from ransacking the Capitol. But the troops arrived hours after initial requests and officials have disputed details in the chronology about how and when troops were requested and deployed.

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