IRS scandal: Ludicrous claims about missing government emails? Been there, done that

Summary:The stories and claims about this batch of missing emails are virtually identical to those we heard when the Bush administration emails went missing. Incredible incompetence or cover-up?

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  • Opposition-controlled Congress demands administration emails as part of an investigation? Check.
  • Administration claims Congress is conducting a witch hunt? Check.
  • There are real questions about the administration's behavior in a potential scandal? Check.
  • Somehow all the relevant email messages go suddenly missing? Check.
  • Claims for what went wrong with email management seem ludicrous to IT professionals? Check.
  • Administration claims about the cost of recovering the lost email messages seem impossibly inflated? Check.
  • It's almost impossible to tell whether administration IT management is as incomprehensibly unprofessional as it seems -- or if a pretense of cluelessness being used to divert questions of disclosure? Check.

Sound familiar?

Which administration am I talking about? Is it the Obama administration, where an IRS director claims to have lost potentially incriminating email messages? Or was it the Bush administration, where email messages about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys somehow went missing?

Hah! Trick question! The correct answer is: both.

There's a difference between archiving and restoring. Archiving is a technical act. Restoring is a political or judicial act.

Over the course of a couple of years back around 2008, I investigated the Bush White House missing email claims. The result was a series of articles, a book (Where Have All The Emails Gone? — free download) and a series of follow-on articles.

Although the White House is now controlled by the Democrats rather than the GOP, the stories and claims about this batch of missing emails — those from Lois Lerner regarding the possible targeting of conservative nonprofit groups — the stories and claims are virtually identical to those we heard when the Bush email messages went missing.

Somehow, claimed the creators of the missing messages, they got lost. When asked to conduct normal and reasonable recovery procedures, both the Bush White House then, and the Obama administration IRS now made "the dog ate my homework" claims that border on the loony.

Sadly, some of the claims, in all likelihood, don't reflect a political desire to obfuscate the truth, but instead reflect incomprehensibly bad IT management in the executive branch. They also reflect arcane archiving practices that seem insane to modern IT professionals but are de rigueur for government flunkies.

Let's start with the whole "printing out" thing that Larry Seltzer brought up in his article about the Lois Lerner IRS case. Yep, one of the things our government does is recommend people print out the email messages they think they're going to need to archive.

I found this back when I was investigating the missing White House email messages. The process for archiving was, not to put too fine a point on it, insane. Rather than using a sophisticated centralized data management and archive system, each employee was tasked with deciding what messages should be saved for archiving — and then print them out.

Seriously. You can't make this stuff up.

There are two records retention acts that impact this practice, the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act. A lot of the White House email issue ran up against rules in the PRA, but the FRA applies to Lerner's work.

The key take-away here is that there is a defined thing called a "record". To the FRA, a "record" is not just any ol' email message. A "record" is an email message that meets certain criteria for storage. That way, the government doesn't have to archive every message from every spouse asking a partner to bring home some Krispy Kremes for breakfast.

It's both designed to protect government worker privacy and reduce the paperwork load on the government. And it's stupid.

In my book, I talked about a very important message that politicians hate hearing: There's a difference between archiving and restoring. Archiving is a technical act. Restoring is a political or judicial act.

In other words, there should be no political consideration whatsoever about correctly storing away messages and files. It's just a technical problem. On the other hand, when it comes time to retrieve those messages and potentially make them public, that is a political and judicial issue.

The bottom line is that everything (especially with our huge capacity for storage now) should be archived in case we need it, but only a small fraction need to be ever brought to light at a later time.

In both the Bush-fired attorneys and the Obama IRS nonprofit cases, Outlook was used as an email client and email messages were stored in PST files. As we all know, PST files are not exactly the most robust of file formats and they tend to corruption. Clearly, storing email just in PST files is not an archiving best practice.

Further, for reasons that have always been inexplicable to me, Microsoft didn't locate their PST files in the My Documents or Documents folder, so users who knew to backup My Documents would backup their PST files. As a result, users who switched computers often found that they lost their email archives, even when using Outlook's own "Do you want to archive now?" built in resource.

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This is why, back in the Bush email case, I kept coming back to the question of whether this was incomprehensibly bad IT or a convenient way to justify lost data.

In the current IRS case, there's another piece of odd evidence. FedSpending.org reports that the IRS contracted wsith an email archiving company named Sonasoft up until just about the time that the Lois Lerner issue became a hot potato. Sonasoft specializes in Exchange archiving. Right around the time the IRS issue became hot, Sonasoft's contract ran out — and was not renewed.

So, in the IRS case, we have a couple of questions that are somewhat different from the Bush case. First, what was archived by Sonasoft and — even if the contract ran out — does that mean the data has been destroyed? Why were PST files being used at all when Exchange generally stores data in OST? What happened to Lerner's hard drive? Could it seriously have been tossed out or destroyed?

Don't expect real answers

I'll tell you this: The odds are we're not going to get a real answer — or the missing messages will somehow magically reappear years after their relevancy and political fuel is long gone.

The fact that we've seen almost exactly the same behavior and tactics (and presumably terrible IT practice) across two very different administrations reinforced the conclusion I came to in the book — that IT was a systemic problem based on how the administrative branch functions.

Back then, I recommended the establishment of a career Electronic Communication Protection Detail that would help solve these sorts of problems. Given that we're seeing the same pattern of either lying or worst practice — or both, the need for an Electronic Communication Protection Detail seems to have stood the test of time.

Later this week, I'll excerpt my proposal for such an operation. Until we bring systemic, cross-administration IT professionalism to the executive branch and agencies, we're going to see more "dog ate my homework" government email stories on and on and on into the future.

What do you think? Incredible incompetence or a cover-up? Comment in the TalkBacks below.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: CXO, Government, Government : US, Microsoft, Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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