Lois lost some emails

Lois-LernerOne critical purpose of the congressional investigations into the IRS scandal, in which conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status were subject to enhanced levels of scrutiny to which liberal organizations were not subject, is to discover whether or not anyone outside the IRS knew about the policy. Understandably, people are suspicious. If presented with the obvious fact that the IRS was persecuting conservatives and asked whether they think non-partisan civil servants or partisan Democrats were most likely to be to blame, people tend to think the Democrats are more likely to be at fault. There is, however, no significant evidence to support this suspicion. If Lois Lerner – the official responsible at the time – exchanged emails with officials at the Treasury Department, the White House, or even the Democratic National Committee it would be damning indeed. Lerner’s emails exchanges with people outside the IRS have long, therefore, been a key piece of evidence that Congress wants to see.

More than a year into the investigation, however, it has emerged that the IRS has lost Lerner’s emails. Specifically, it has lost all the emails she exchanged over a two-year period with people outside the IRS. It has all her internal emails, but those with external parties are all gone.

Since those external emails are the precise target of the investigation, Congress understandably wants to know how those emails – and only those emails – went astray. The narrative appears to be this: Lerner’s hard drive became damaged, and all its contents were lost. Although emails all go through the server and are backed up there, the backup tapes are deleted every six months, and no-one thought to make an exception in this case, even though it was already known that the backups were actually required. Internal emails were recoverable, because they all existed on the hard drives of other IRS employees. The only way to track down the other end of Lerner’s external emails would be to draw a very wide subpoena, covering anyone with whom she might have had correspondence.

As Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, put it “sometimes a broken hard drive is just a broken hard drive”. Sometimes it is – though the administration’s position is that Lew knew nothing about Lerner’s activities, let alone her hard drive, so he wouldn’t actually know in this case. 

Hard drives do break, even to the point where the information is not recoverable, though general advice when throwing one out is to break it with a hammer, just to be sure. Backup tapes do get destroyed, and it is certainly possible that the IRS is so ridiculously incompetent that it destroyed its backups even though the very circumstance for which backups are made had actually arisen. That this situation arose some two years ago and now, a full year into a congressional investigation, it has only just come to light is a bit of a stretch, but still possible. 

Critics, however, are unconvinced. IT professionals suggest that there are several layers of further security in large organizations and that at least six things would have to have separately gone wrong for the emails to have actually become lost. This makes the official narrative look weak, to say the least. 

Lerner has already been held in contempt of Congress, and she has repeatedly asserted her Fifth Amendment rights. We may never get to the bottom of this.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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