The Internal Revenue Service building, Washington DC.
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Another IRS ‘bombshell’ offers more heat than light

Updated
Last week, congressional Republicans and their allies were not at all pleased to learn that some of Lois Lerner’s IRS emails from 2010 and 2011 were lost due to a hard drive crash. It didn’t help matters when lawmakers learned yesterday that other IRS workers lost old emails the same way.
 
Fair-minded observers realized months ago that the “scandal” evaporated when all of the allegations were proven to be wrong, but the missing emails has clearly piqued the interest of far-right partisans looking for an election-year gimmick and the Beltway media. Politico published this unfortunate piece overnight.
Just when some thought the IRS controversy was winding down – boom!
 
The tax agency handed Republicans what could be a bombshell late on Friday, telling congressional investigators that a computer crash led to the loss of two years [sic] worth of emails from the figure at the center of the scandal: Ex-tax exempt IRS chief Lois Lerner, who the GOP accuses of using her position to go after the likes of Crossroads GPS and other conservative groups.
Even putting “boom!” aside, there are some problems with this, including the fact that there is no “scandal” and the “bombshell” is far less interesting than Republicans want the media to believe.
 
In reality, the IRS’s version of events is actually quite believable. Philip Bump had a terrific report offering a basic technical overview.
Prior to the eruption of the IRS controversy last spring, the IRS had a policy of backing up the data on its email server (which runs Microsoft Outlook) every day. It kept a backup of the records for six months on digital tape, according to a letter sent from the IRS to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). After six months, the IRS would reuse those tapes for newer backups. So when Congressional committees began requesting emails from the agency, its records only went back to late 2012.
 
The IRS also had two other policies that complicated things. The first was a limit on how big its employees’ email inboxes could be. At the IRS, employees could keep 500 megabytes of data on the email server. If the mailbox got too big, email would need to be deleted or moved to a local folder on the user’s computer.
 
Emails considered an “official record” of the IRS couldn’t be deleted and, in fact, needed to also have a hard copy filed. Those emails that constitute an official record are ones that are loosely defined under IRS policy as ones that were “[c]reated or received in the transaction of agency business,” “appropriate for preservation as evidence of the government’s function or activities,” or “valuable because of the information they contain”. The letter sent to the senators suggests that it was up to the user to determine what emails met those standards. It’s not clear if Lerner had any hard copies of important emails.
Due to the constraints, the IRS was able to pull together plenty of Lerner emails, except for the ones lost when her computer crashed. As the AP reported, “technicians said they sent the computer to a forensic lab run by the agency’s criminal investigations unit. But to no avail.” Is that plausible? Of course it is. In fact, it’s happened to many of us. Indeed, Lerner wasn’t even the only affected employee at the tax agency.
 
But won’t the missing emails contribute to a cover-up? No, not really. The IRS has already produced 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, from 2009 to 2013, and were able to piece together 24,000 Lerner emails from the missing period based those who’d been cc’d in various messages. How many of them include incriminating information? As best as we can tell, none – Republicans have leaked anything and everything in the hopes of keeping this story alive, but they haven’t leaked anything on this front.
 
Also note, the period of time Republicans care about is 2012 – the election year. The missing emails are from 2010 and 2011. I’m no criminal mastermind, but if the IRS were trying to hide incriminating evidence of what Lerner was up to in 2012, the agency probably would have destroyed emails from 2012.
 
But that’s not what happened. Republicans and their investigators already have the relevant materials from the relevant period, and they still have no evidence to bolster their conspiracy theories.
 
Several GOP lawmakers and a few lazy pundits seem to think a hard-drive crash takes this discredited “controversy” to a new level, but this argument is borne of desperation, not evidence.
 
There’s still nothing here.
 
Update: Just to reiterate a point from the other day, I still wish Congress and the political world would at least try to be even-handed in this area. If we’re going to talk about lost emails, let’s talk about lost emails.
The Bush White House email controversy surfaced in 2007, during the controversy involving the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. Congressional requests for administration documents while investigating the dismissals of the U.S. attorneys required the Bush administration to reveal that not all internal White House emails were available, because they were sent via a non-government domain hosted on an email server not controlled by the federal government. Conducting governmental business in this manner is a possible violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, and the Hatch Act…. In 2009, it was announced that as many as 22 million emails may have been deleted. [emphasis added]
At the time, congressional Republican didn’t seem bothered by this at all. Imagine that. Relentlessly centrist pundits showed no interest in a special prosecutor.

Am I saying the Obama and Bush administrations are equally at fault on this issue? No. The difference is, there was credible evidence that the Bush White House had engaged in actual wrongdoing, raising the possibility that the missing emails included potentially incriminating evidence, all of which somehow went missing.
 
In contrast, no one has yet produced any evidence that the IRS “controversy” is real.
 

IRS and Scandals

Another IRS 'bombshell' offers more heat than light

Updated