Fox News personalities baselessly accused the Obama administration of engaging in a cover-up following reports that the IRS lost emails connected to the alleged targeting of organizations seeking tax-exempt status, ignoring the fact that government agencies regularly lose emails due to antiquated computer systems and policies.
IRS Says Some Emails Connected To IRS Investigation Lost Due To Computer Crash
AP: “The Internal Revenue Service Has Lost More Emails Connected To The Tea Party Investigation.” On June 17, the Associated Press reported that the IRS lost emails following a crash of IRS official Lois Lerner's computer:
The IRS said last Friday it had lost an untold number of emails when Lois Lerner's computer crashed in 2011. Lerner used to head the division that handles applications for tax-exempt status.
On Tuesday, two key lawmakers said the IRS has also lost emails from six additional IRS workers whose computers crashed. Among them was Nikole Flax, who was chief of staff to Lerner's boss, then-deputy commissioner Steven Miller.
Investigators from the House Ways and Means Committee interviewed IRS technicians Monday. The technicians said they first realized that Lerner's emails were lost in February or March -- months before they informed congressional investigators, said a statement by two top Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and subcommittee chairman Charles Boustany of Louisiana. [Associated Press, 6/17/14]
Fox News Suggests Lost Emails Are An Obama Administration Cover-Up
Fox's Hemmer Asks Whether The Lost Emails Are Evidence Of A Cover-Up. On the June 18 edition of Fox's America's Newsroom, co-host Bill Hemmer interviewed True the Vote President Catherine Engelbrecht, a purported victim of inappropriate targeting by the IRS. During the interview Hemmer asked Engelbrecht “is this a cover-up?” Engelbrecht replied, “Yes, of course it is.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 6/18/14]
Fox's Doocy Suggests Emails Were Purposely Destroyed. During the June 18 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy claimed “it's a scandal” that the IRS emails were lost, invoking the possibility of “data destruction”:
DOOCY: It's a scandal. Look, the IRS either has the world's worst IT department -- because, you know, it crashed and everything's gone. That's kind of a 2001 computer problem, that's not a 2011 problem. Everything is backed up left and right. So they either have the world's worst IT department or else there has been data destruction across the board, which means if it's caught, people will go to prison. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 6/18/14]
Fox's Hannity: “I Have A Hard Time Believing That They Lost Emails That They Can't Retrieve.” On the June 17 edition of his Fox News show, Sean Hannity called the reports of lost emails “disturbing,” adding, “Why is it that in this day and age, I have a hard time believing that they lost emails that they can't retrieve, they knew about it for months, and they didn't tell anybody?” [Fox News, Hannity, 6/17/14]
Fox News Op-Ed Claims Lost Emails Are A Brazen Cover-Up Of Serious “Obama Administration Wrongdoing.” In a June 17 FoxNews.com op-ed, Fox regular and attorney Jay Sekulow asserted that the IRS' claim that a computer crash caused the emails to be lost was proof “that the content of the emails must be so damning that it's best to just not produce them”:
The emails that have been “lost” undoubtedly exist. So what's actually happening?
The plausible explanation is that the IRS believes the contents of the emails are actually more damaging to its institutional interests than the scandal of hiding or deleting them. This behavior leads to the conclusion that the content of the emails must be so damning that it's best to just not produce them. In other words, the truth is more dangerous than the cover-up.
This precisely flips the standard Washington narrative, where the cover-up is typically worse than the underlying scandal, where government officials will sometimes go so far as to break the law to conceal political mere political or personal embarrassments.
Here, the cover-up is so brazen, so open and obvious, that it makes sense only if the underlying offense is of overriding seriousness. [FoxNews.com, 6/17/14]
Experts Say Antiquated Computer Systems And Policies Are To Blame For Lost Emails
Politico: “Dated Computer Systems And Rules” Caused IRS Email Records To Be Lost. A June 17 Politico article pointed to experts saying “dated computer systems and rules” are to blame for the lost emails:
But transparency advocates and experts in retrieving email from antiquated government computer systems say they're not at all surprised. The reason: The IRS's record-keeping procedures -- like erasing backup tapes every six months -- have been known for years as critical weaknesses in government record collection. These observers say all of the warning signs were there for years before large troves of messages from as many as six IRS employees caught up in the tea party scandal were destroyed through a combination of equipment failures and inadequate archiving procedures.
The dated computer systems and rules also make it likely that critical documents from other agencies and offices have been lost to history, and there's no guarantee new records will be adequately protected and archived. [Politico, 6/17/14]
Wash. Post's Bump Explains Details Of The Loss Of Emails. On June 16, Washington Post writer Philip Bump reported:
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. [The Washington Post, 6/16/14]
Previous Administrations Also Lost Records
CNN: Bush Administration Lost 22 Million Emails. In 2009, CNN reported that computer technicians had recovered 22 million “mislabeled and effectively lost” emails lost from 2003 to 2005 during the George W. Bush administration:
The e-mail controversy dates back to the Bush administration's 2006 firing of the top federal prosecutors in nine cities. After congressional committees demanded the administration produce documents related to the firings, the White House said millions of e-mails might have been lost from its servers. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive sued over the issue in 2007, arguing the Bush administration violated federal laws that require presidential records to be preserved.
Court records have shown that the Bush administration knew about the e-mail problems as far back as 2005 and did nothing to fix them, Sloan said. [CNN.com, ;12/15/09]
Politico: “Records Gone Missing Have Become A Tradition Passed On From One Administration To The Next.” In a June 17 article, Politico reported that missing records and emails are not new and that in fact, records have gone missing going back to the Nixon administration:
Indeed, records gone missing have become a tradition passed on from one administration to the next. The missing IRS emails call to mind the gap in Oval Office recordings during the Richard M. Nixon administration and vanished emails from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. [Politico, 6/17/14]