You can probably quit holding out any hope that additional recovery efforts might retrieve some of the missing emails from former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner’s hard drive: The drive, which the IRS says crashed in 2011, just days after Republicans began investigating the tax agency’s scrutiny of conservative non-profits, was apparently thrown away.
House Oversight Committee Darrell Issa subpoenaed the hard drive earlier this week, but he’s not likely to get it. Multiple sources tell Politico that the IRS has indicated that the drive was destroyed.
Congressional investigators are interested in the drive because the IRS says that it contained archives of Lois Lerner’s email correspondence; without the drive, the agency claims it cannot produce emails between Lerner and outside groups or agencies. Lerner was the head of the agency’s tax-exempt division, and she is at the center of investigation, but she has repeatedly declined to answer congressional questions about the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups, citing her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
If the crashed hard drive had the only copies of Lerner’s email, then those communications are likely gone forever.
But is the hard drive really the only place those emails would have been stored? Records-retention protocols released by the IRS indicate that before May of last year, employee inboxes were limited, external backup tapes kept only six months of data and were then recycled, and that, as a result, there was no centralized backup of email. Employees were individually responsible for preserving much of their own email correspondence.
Yet just a few months ago, current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen—who promised to cooperate fully with the investigation—indicated in a congressional hearing that the emails were not stored on individual computers, but "taken off and stored in servers." Via Townhall’s Guy Benson, here’s the relevant exchange between Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Koskinen:
Chaffetz: What email system do you use there at the IRS?
Koskinen: What email system do we use?
Chaffetz: Yeah, is it Outlook, or…
Koskinen: Yes, we have actually Microsoft -- or at least I have -- Microsoft Outlook.
Chaffetz: So you go on there, and you want to find all of the items you sent under your name, how long would that take?
Koskinen: Well it'd take awhile because they're not all on my computer. They're all stored somewhere….
[Some discussion about how long it might take to collect emails with Lerner’s address.]
Chaffetz: That's [part] of the brilliance of the email system. You go in and you check the 'sent' box, and the inbox, and you suddenly have all of the emails, correct?
Koskinen: Right. They get taken off and stored in servers…
Watch the full clip at the bottom of the post.
It’s of course possible that Koskinen, who is not a tech staffer, just didn’t understand the specifics of the IRS backup protocols, and didn’t know that emails were only stored centrally for a short period of time.
But if Koskinen, who was being questioned about the agency’s compliance with documents requests and surely had to have been briefed on the agency’s efforts to gather documents up to that point, was correct when he said that the emails are taken off individual desktops and "stored in servers," then Lerner’s hard drive shouldn’t be necessary.
It’s also worth asking what Kosinen knew about the destroyed drives and lost emails when he was speaking before Congress: The hearing occurred in March—but according to the House Ways and Means Committee, the agency has known about the crash since at least February, but held off on telling House investigators.
Lerner isn’t the only IRS official whose communications have gone missing thanks to convenient computer troubles. According to the House Ways and Means Committee, the agency says it cannot produce some records for six more employees, including Nicole Flax, a regular visitor to the White House and former chief of staff in the IRS commissioner’s office. Flax's communications were also apparently lost due to hard drive failures. If there are still email records "stored in servers," as Koskinen says, then it would be nice to have them.