IRS now not sure if backup emails exist, but claims more hard drives crashed

Don't get whiplash as an IRS attorney testified that the IRS is not sure if backups of Lerner's emails still exist, but other IRS officials with whom she would have communicated...their hard drives crashed too.

Destroyed hard drive
Jon Ross (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The “lost” emails of Lois Lerner, former Director of the Exempt Organizations Division at the IRS, has been an ongoing drama, with some people debating whether it is a huge conspiracy or the IRS has the worst IT department ever. So far in the congressional investigation into the IRS allegedly targeting Tea Party and conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012, not only are Lerner’s emails “lost” after her hard drive crashed, and the IRS still doesn’t know if backups of those emails exist, but now more IRS officials claim to have experienced computer crashes.

IRS officials previously testified that “back-up tapes from 2011 no longer exist because they have been recycled.” Yet according to transcribed congressional testimony, IRS Deputy Associate Chief Counsel Thomas Kane is not so sure about those backups now…and, oh yeah, more IRS officials – “less than 20” – experienced hard drive crashes.

Kane testified, “There is an issue as to whether or not there is a ‑‑ that all of the backup recovery tapes were destroyed on the 6‑month retention schedule.” When asked if some of those backups still exist, Kane replied, “I don’t know whether they are or they aren’t, but it’s an issue that’s being looked at.”

The backups could put an end to the “search for America’s most-wanted hard drive,” although there is a question of “whether Lerner’s hard drive, which supposedly contains copies of the lost emails, could be tracked using a serial number and then restored.” IRS IT experts testified that IT staff wiped Lerner’s hard drive and then recycled it via an “unnamed outside contractor that likely ‘shredded’ the device.” Politico added, “Another unnamed contractor was able to identify the serial number for the hard drive, but according to the court declaration, IRS never kept track of those numbers.”

At the end of June, the International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers (IAITAM) expressed “grave concerns about the plausibility of the IRS story.” IAITAM founder and president Dr. Barbara Rembiesa said, "This is not rocket science, but you have to have the real experts on hand to get to the bottom of this." She explained:

“The notion that these emails just magically vanished makes no sense whatsoever. That is not how IT asset management at major businesses and government institutions works in this country. When the hard drive in question was destroyed, the IRS should have called in an accredited IT Asset Destruction (ITAD) professional or firm to complete that process, which requires extensive documentation, official signoffs, approvals, and signatures of completion. If this was done, there would be records. If this was not done, this is the smoking gun that proves the drive or drives were destroyed improperly – or not at all."

Since IAITAM experts say they deal with these types of issues on a daily basis, they have come up with a list of six key questions that the Department of Justice and Congress need to ask the IRS.

  1. What happened to the IRS's IT Asset Managers who appear to have disappeared at a key juncture? IAITAM has records showing that there were “at least three IT Asset Managers who were working at the IRS prior to the 13 May 2013 Inspector General Report were shuffled out from those positions around the time of that report. Investigators need to determine if these in-house IT Asset Managers were removed from the picture as the IRS email investigation heated up.”
  2. Where is the documentation proving that Lois Lerner's hard drive was wiped or destroyed? “Proper IT Asset Management requires clear proof and records of destruction when drives are wiped or destroyed. Until that documentation is provided, the hard drives should be considered lost, not destroyed.”
  3. Were the drives destroyed by an outside vendor or firm? It’s not uncommon for federal government agencies to have hard drives wiped or destroyed by “a specialized IT Asset Destruction (ITAD) firm;” so who was it and “can they verify the destruction?”
  4. What are the IRS's specific policies and procedures on document retention when hard drives are damaged or destroyed? “In large organizations, hard drives don't just get bulk erased. The IRS almost certainly has specific policies and procedures for hard drive reclamation and/or destruction. If the process was followed properly, there will documentation evidencing failed attempts to recover data from the hard drives and proper handling for destruction.”
  5. What is the disaster recovery policy at the IRS?
  6. Where are Lois Lerner's emails from her Blackberry device? Are those secure? What is on the enterprise server?

Lastly, also according to Kane’s testimony, “less than 20” IRS officials also experienced hard drive crashes. Surprise or possibly not so much at all, some of those other crashed hard drives belonged to IRS officials with whom Lerner would have corresponded: manager of Exempt Organizations Guidance Andy Megosh, technical adviser to the commissioner of Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Justin Lowe, director of Exempt Organizations Guidance David Fish, and Cincinnati-based IRS agent Kimberly Kitchens "who donated to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign."

Getting rid of all damning digital traces would be a huge undertaking, but then again, after three years surely people working to diligently destroy all electronic evidence could have pulled it off? Is this a massive conspiracy or does the IRS have some of the most incompetent IT staff/procedures ever? 

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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