IRS: Um, yeah, sorry, we completely destroyed Lois Lerner’s hard drive
The clumsiest cover-up in history lurches along, as The Hill sums up the current state of IRS responsiveness to Congressional subpoenas in the Tea Party targeting scandal:
Congressional Republicans are hunting for hard drives, smartphones and maintenance logs that they think could yield emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner.
Two House committees — Ways and Means and Oversight — are investigating IRS claims that Lerner’s hard drive failed in 2011, likely erasing emails they believe to be relevant to their probe of the scrutiny that was given to Tea Party groups.
The IRS says backup copies of the emails no longer exist because until last year, it only kept such tapes for six months before recycling them.
The agency has yet to say what became of Lerner’s hard drive, though Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and several GOP aides say they have been told the drive no longer exists.
Lerner, the central figure in the IRS controversy, and other agency staffers discussed the drive going to the “hard drive cemetery” in 2011 if its contents couldn’t be saved, according to emails released Friday.
So the hard drive was physically destroyed because technicians decided its data was unrecoverable; Lerner didn’t make backups because she supposedly had discretion over what correspondence met the agency standards for both electronic and hardcopy backups; the IRS mail servers don’t have anything because, until recently, they got wiped every six months, without permanent backups; and SHAZAM! the six other key figures in the scandal also suffered mysterious hard drive crashes that will probably result in the same total destruction of data… crashes that occurred right after House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp began asking questions on behalf of the targeted conservative groups, who had been complaining about the slow approvals and intimidating treatment they were experiencing.
And nobody mentioned any of this, even though one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Internal Revenue Service has been boiling for two years now, until page 17 of a 27-page letter dropped last Friday. The agency which demands perfect record-keeping from American citizens has lousy record-keeping policies. What are you gonna do? (That’s not an entirely rhetorical question. What are you going to do about it, peon?)
House Oversight hasn’t given up looking for evidence, although I’m sure it will take months, or maybe years, for IRS to deliver what they’re asking for now… plenty of time for more unfortunate accidents.
It might be possible to salvage some information from the original backup tapes, said Giovanni Masucci, the president and senior digital forensic examiner at National Digital Forensics.
It all depends whether or not the IRS used a magnetic process to wipe the tapes clean, known as degaussing. If they did, any information on the tapes would be gone.
“Anything is potentially recoverable, whether it’s been wiped or not,” he said. “But I have to tell you, if it’s degaussed, if it’s been done the right way, you’re not going to get the data back.”
The House Oversight Committee has also subpoenaed all of Lerner’s computers and smartphones from 2009 to 2013, which might provide some evidence if she used them to read her email. Plus, there could be traces on the original email server from before it was backed up to the tapes.
“There should be some kind of email trace,” Masucci said, especially because the IRS relies on Microsoft Outlook.
“As an examiner we love Microsoft because it leaves traces everywhere,” he added. “So we’re able to look into different areas of a server and the computer to find data — residual data.”
But Hall of DriveSavers wasn’t so sure, saying that even metadata information, such as a record of where an email was sent to and from, would be lost without the original devices.
Hall said it was doubtful that any of the other devices that Oversight subpoenaed would shed much light on Lerner’s emails.
“Email is not going to go through an external device,” he said. “There would be no default reason for it to be there or to be placed there in the first place.”
The White House helpfully pitched in and took a look for any correspondence it might have received from Lerner, but darn it all, they couldn’t find anything except two requests for tax assistance from loyal citizens, and one spam email.
House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa sounds a wee bit on the skeptical side: “If the IRS truly got rid of evidence in a way that violated the Federal Records Act and ensured the FBI never got a crack at recovering files from an official claiming a Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, this is proof their whole line about ‘losing’ e-mails in the targeting scandal was just one more attempted deception. Official records, like the e-mails of a prominent official, don’t just disappear without a trace unless that was the intention.”
The Wall Street Journal looks beyond these tales of one-in-a-million hardware errors wiping out the emails of key scandal figures, and notices something else unsavory about Friday’s dog-ate-my-homework letter:
Some history: House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa as early as June 4, 2013 asked the IRS to provide “all documents and communications sent by, received by, or copied to Lois Lerner” between Jan. 1, 2009 and the present.” Note the “all.”
Mr. Issa sent an official subpoena demanding “all” the records in August 2013, and another subpoena reiterating the “all” demand in February 2014. Former Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel in August of 2013 told Congress, under oath, that the IRS was “reviewing every one of Lois Lerner’s emails, and providing the response.” Current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in February told Congress, under oath, that the IRS was sending all of Ms. Lerner’s emails.
Yet in its letter on Friday the IRS slipped in the following: “In early 2014, Chairmen Camp and Issa reiterated their requests for all of Lois Lerner’s email, regardless of subject matter . . . Fulfilling the request,” said the IRS, meant it had to compile Lerner emails that went beyond the “search terms” it had “originally loaded for review.” By mid-March, the agency admitted, it had produced for Congress only the Lerner emails that it—the IRS—considered “related” to the scandal.
In other words, the IRS has from the start been picking and choosing which of Ms. Lerner’s emails it deigned to show Congress. And it did so despite knowing that Congress wanted everything.
The IRS tends to take a dim view of citizens who “pick and choose” which documentation they give it, even when facing demands less severe than a Congressional subpoena. Or, I suppose, the bottom line is that this lawless government no longer considers subpoenas a big deal. Not even the legislature can exercise oversight against a bureaucracy grown so powerful that citizens no longer have any way to resist or restrain it. If the Tax Exempt Organizations unit of the IRS decides to take politically lopsided action after a Supreme Court decision their favorite Democrats don’t like, and then lie through their teeth about what happened for a few news cycles – remember the “rogue low-level employees in Cincinnati?” excuse? – then that’s what they’ll do, and neither the targeted citizens nor Congress has anything to say about it. They’ll do it again, the first chance they get – there is no reason to believe otherwise. No one involved in the previous caper has suffered consequences worse than modest inconvenience, paid administrative leave, or retirement with full benefits.