Hard-drive scratch deejays of the IRS

The saga of Lois Lerner’s supposedly defective hard drive has become a mini-scandal unto itself, as the implausible excuses offered for the refusal to hand over subpoenaed electronic documents twist into ever more fantastic configurations. Even if one was inclined to take the IRS’ excuses on faith, the degree of breezy contempt they showed toward federal record-keeping laws – in a matter they knew was erupting into hot-lava controversy – would be astonishing. The idea that this should all end with nothing more than a quiet admonition to do better next time is ridiculous.

The House Ways and Means Committee introduces us to the scratch deejays of the IRS, who laid down a mean groove upon the Tax Exempt Organizations Director’s magnetized platters:

Despite early refusals to make available IT professionals who worked on Lois Lerner???s computer, Ways and Means Committee investigators have now learned from interviews that the hard drive of former IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner was ???scratched,??? but data was recoverable. In fact, in-house professionals at the IRS recommended the Agency seek outside assistance in recovering the data. That information conflicts with a July 18, 2014 court filing by the Agency, which stated the data on the hard drive was unrecoverable ??? including multiple years??? worth of missing emails.

???It is unbelievable that we cannot get a simple, straight answer from the IRS about this hard drive,??? said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI). ???The Committee was told no data was recoverable and the physical drive was recycled and potentially shredded. To now learn that the hard drive was only scratched, yet the IRS refused to utilize outside experts to recover the data, raises more questions about potential criminal wrong doing at the IRS.??? 

It is also unknown whether the scratch was accidental or deliberate, but former federal law enforcement and Department of Defense forensic experts consulted by the Committee say that most of the data on a scratched drive, such as Lerner???s, should have been recoverable. However, in a declaration filed last Friday by the IRS, the agency said it tried but failed to recover the data, but is not sure what happened to the hard drive afterwards other than saying they believe it was recycled, which, according to the court filing means ???shredded.??? 

“Accidental” hard drive scratches on modern equipment are about as common as winning lottery tickets. It takes considerable blunt-force trauma to cause something like that… say, the kind of trauma that might be administered by a political operative frantically attempting to wipe out damning evidence with a hammer. It’s unlikely that merely dropping a laptop could do it, unless it was the sort of drop that had a rather epic story behind it. And we didn’t hear any such stories during the long months when the IRS assured Congress they’d have Lois Lerner’s emails any day now. At any rate, a physical scratch across a few sectors of a hard drive wouldn’t make all of its stored data unrecoverable.

To emphasize the unlikelihood of this story even further, something like twenty other IRS employees linked to the political targeting scandal also supposedly suffered massive computer failures that wiped out their data. Other government agencies have tendered similar excuses, after seeing the IRS get away with it. There has even been a recent case of SRHDF (Subpoena Response Hard Drive Failure) reported in Australia, where a member of parliament accused of corruption claims his computer crashed and irreparably wiped out crucial documents. It’s the worst global pandemic since the Andromeda Strain. And hard drives seemed so reliable before now!

But wait, this gets even better, because that “shredded” tale also has a certain shaggy-dog quality about it:

Further complicating the situation, the Committee???s investigation has revealed evidence that this declaration may not be accurate. A review of internal IRS IT tracking system documents revealed that Lerner???s computer was actually once described as ???restored.??? In a transcribed interview on July 18, IRS IT employees were unable to confirm the accuracy of the documents or the meaning of the entry ???recovered.???

???It is these constant delays and late revelations that have forced this investigation to go on so long,??? Camp added. ???If the IRS would just come clean and tell Congress and the American people what really happened, we could put an end to this. Our investigators will not stop until we find the full truth.???

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) took another swing at getting answers about the Lerner “hard drive crash” from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen on Wednesday. Gowdy was so “confounded” and “vexed” by Internal Revenue’s disdain for proper data security that he actually winks out of existence about two minutes into the video below, mercifully re-integrating himself a few moments later to ask if Treasury Inspector General investigations should be used as a blanket shield against congressional and criminal inquiries. That was the excuse proffered by Koskinen when he made the surprising admission on Wednesday that he’s not running any serious investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Lerner’s emails.

Gowdy speaks for many Americans when he expresses shock that the IRS would begin complaining about flagging employee morale as a result of these investigations. “It takes a lot to stun me, but that stunned me,” said the congressman. “Here’s a piece of advice I would give: if folks like Lois Lerner and others would have spent more time working on the backlog, more time working on their case load – and less time targeting groups, less time trying to overturn Supreme Court decisions they didn’t agree with – maybe morale would be better, and maybe their backlogs would be lessened.”

Instead, it’s clear that the IRS spends more time polishing alibis and contriving distractions than it does answering questions or obeying federal record-keeping laws. Koskinen claims his agency has battled an astounding volume of computer crashes – two thousand in just the first half of 2014! – and suggested the problem was due to outmoded equipment, as though top IRS officials are still running Windows 95 boxes. (Translation: give us more money and we’ll think about upgrading our computers, so we can comply with the next round of subpoenas.)

No amount of hardware upgrades will make any difference if government officials ignore backup procedures which have proven effective since the era of monochrome monitors, especially if said officials have a vested interest in making certain inconvenient documents disappear. What Rep. Gowdy said about Lerner and her colleagues declaring war on a Supreme Court decision they (and their Democrat patrons) didn’t like is absolutely true, a matter of documented fact – no suspiciously-timed hard drive failures wiped out those emails. Even as these endless evasions drag out the Tea Party targeting investigation, they make a strong case for junking the entire Internal Revenue system, which puts far too much power in the hands of arrogant officials with skewed priorities.

If anything, those officials will be more confident than ever they can evade the consequences for abusing their authority, if the worst fallout from this scandal obliges the IRS Commissioner to spend a few afternoons spinning fanciful tales for exasperated representatives. Last month, Koskinen claimed all of the backup tapes for Lerner’s system had been destroyed; now he says some tapes have been found after all; tomorrow we’ll find out they’re blank, or scratched, or maybe they’ll be destroyed in a fire. Obstructionist Democrats claim it’s “unseemly” to keep dragging Koskinen to these committee hearings. Why not, if he says something different every time he appears?