Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The IRS: Could Lerner’s emails really just evaporate?

Well, that didn’t go very well, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen was summoned before Congress this week to answer more questions about the agency’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny prior to the 2012 elections, and somehow managed to “destroy what is left of his agency’s credibility.” Under relentless questioning by incredulous Republican congressmen, Koskinen insisted the agency could not retrieve two years’ worth of lost emails to and from Lois Lerner, the official suspected of having singled out conservative groups for IRS scrutiny. Lerner’s hard drive, Koskinen said, had been destroyed, and all “backup tapes” had been erased. “It is not unusual for computers anywhere to fail,” he said, blaming Congress for budget cuts that forced the IRS to use antiquated computer systems. This stonewalling “tells us that Congress is sniffing down the right trail,” said Kimberley Strassel in WSJ.com. Are we really expected to believe that on June 13, 2011—10 days after congressional Republicans first wrote to the IRS about the targeting of conservatives—Lerner’s “hard-drive supposedly defied modernity and suffered total annihilation?”

“The timing looks awfully suspicious,” said Megan McArdle in BloombergView.com, but as a former email administrator I can tell you that Lerner’s story is entirely plausible. Lerner’s hard drive seems to have failed the way most aging hard drives do, a victim of “bad sectors.” On Aug. 5, 2011, the IRS’s tech people notified Lerner that the data on her hard drive was “unrecoverable.” There is also “an innocent explanation” for why there is no backup: IRS employees were each allotted a paltry 500 megabytes of server space, and once that was filled up, the system would start storing all new messages “locally” on the computer’s hard drive. Meanwhile, backup tapes on servers were erased every six months so they could be reused. This backward policy left the IRS “wide open to losing important records.”

A close look at the timing proves there’s no scandal here, said Michael Tomasky in TheDailyBeast.com. Lerner’s hard drive crashed on June 13, 2011, but we know she first learned that Republicans were inquiring about the targeting of conservative groups on June 29. Yes, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp had written to the IRS back on June 3, but contrary to Republican assertions, that letter was on a different topic—gift taxes on individuals who donated money to nonprofit advocacy groups. That letter was sent to then-Commissioner Doug Shulman, with Lerner not copied in, and made not a single mention of conservative targeting. Lerner, in other words, would need to be a “clairvoyant” to have sabotaged her own computer in advance of this phony “scandal.” Poor Republicans, said Heather Digby Parton in Salon .com. “The Right has been praying for a Democratic Watergate for years,” but those pesky “facts” keep getting in the way.

Democrats shouldn’t “chuckle themselves to sleep” just yet, said James Poulos in TheDailyBeast.com. The IRS is not a popular institution, to put it mildly, and voters won’t find it hard to believe the agency was used as a tool of political oppression. If Democrats simply dismiss this whole affair as just another conspiracy from unhinged conservatives, it could backfire. “Sometimes stuff just happens,” Lerner emailed the IRS techs in 2011, after her emails vanished. Sometimes, that kind of indifferent attitude toward incompetency “costs political parties big elections.”
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