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

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

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

120 comments
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  • Lost Tech

    Lots of difference in the technology available, and its cost, between 2008 and 2014.
    dlsweb
    • Not really...

      In fact, when it comes to tech there is no difference between what was available in 2008 and 2014.
      jasonp@...
  • Are these emails the only ones that get lost?

    The real question is how many emails actually get lost? Only the important ones that may bring a negative out come to something wrong? Or is losing emails just a more widespread proof of incompetency? As Dana Carvey always said as the "Church Lady". "How convenient" !!
    JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
  • Cover Up...

    Hey, what does it matter; right? Will the IRS (or the Justice Department) accept my excuse for not paying taxes or fines for not purchasing Obamacare? I mean, the dog ate my records! Or, I'm just so incompetent that all of my records residing on all servers throughout my business were destroyed by a disk crash on my PC!

    Fact is, they got caught. They lied. They destroyed all incriminating evidence. They are corrupt politicians and their minions. All need to be cleaned out.
    thesuperstitions@...
    • Morons think it's a cover up!

      It looks like @thesuperstions is talking out his tuches because he does not know the truth. In fact, anyone who calls it a conspiracy is a moron and deserves the angst that goes along with their hatred.

      Let me put it plainly, as a non-partisan infosec worker who has worked for the IRS in a capacity to know, I know for a fact that the IRS email system is not the most solid system. It has and always had significant flaws that were only addressed recently when they had to address the situation. This is because CONGRESS does not appropriate enough money for operations and maintenance leaving the IRS to prioritize what they spend the money on. Maintaining the tax administration systems are a higher priority than the email system.

      The IRS is not technically incompetent. In fact, they are more competent than the haters that have commented here. They maintain the tax records for over 200 million tax paying entities in the United States. Tell me folks, how many companies maintain account records for 200 million customers? No commercial organization has the workload of the IRS and only Social Security maintains the records on more people--and I can tell you stories of the Charlie Foxtrot that's Social Security.

      If you want the IRS to do its job right, then tell your representative in congress to get his or her head out their political behinds and do their job by giving the IRS and every other agency the resources they need. After all, security is not a zero cost option!!
      sbarman
      • it's just an exchange email system

        pretty much the standard for email last 10-15 years, you are the moron

        Hell, even if still using exchange 2003 they would be retrievable easily.

        The emails are there on backups, journal accounts, dag copies and servers, some client hard drive crashing has no effect.
        everss02
      • Two questions

        What is the IRS' annual IT budget? 2011 = $1.8 Billion, 2013 request = $2.1 Billion
        http://www.irs.gov/pub/newsroom/budget-in-brief-fy2013.pdf

        Why did they cancel an account with an email backup service 10 days after the alleged loss of email files?
        http://reason.com/blog/2014/06/20/the-irs-had-a-contract-with-an-email-bac?fb_action_ids=10203926514421456&fb_action_types=og.likes
        Robert Crocker
      • Or better yet

        Pass the Fair Tax Act and abolish the IRS entirely!
        romad@...
        • Who's going to collect it?

          Every government needs tax collectors, so unless we figure out how to fund the US government entirely from import taxes (collected by the US Customs Service) and user fees, either the IRS, or something like it will continue to exist. We'd like it to be smaller and more efficient (a natural consequence of a simpler system), but it would still be around.

          History has shown that as obnoxious as publicly employed tax collectors can be, contractors (called "publicans" by the Romans) are much worse.
          John L. Ries
          • His post is proof

            That our tax system of overbearing. While we won't completely abolish the IRS imagine if you could do your taxes on a post card. Ok, maybe a post card is over ambitious but on one side of 1 piece of paper... Why not?
            apoteke
          • Sure

            Pretty soon it will be a very large piece of paper. Several square yards.
            Removing tax stick and carrot form the hands of politicians is never going to happen. How else they could buy votes ?
            marchel@...
          • Which is why we need an informed, educated citizenry...

            ...to properly supervise the politicians, and truly competitive elections (general, not just primaries) to give the citizens maximum opportunity to fire politicians that have overstayed their welcomes. In a democracy, there are really no adequate substitute for those things.
            John L. Ries
          • It's a simple question, but it's a complex answer

            To determine what income tax people should pay, you need to define two things:
            1. What is taxable?
            2. What is the tax rate?

            The latter takes maybe 6 or eight pages of the 1040 booklet, the former takes hundreds of thousands of pages of law and regulations. If you want simple, you want to ditch an income tax and go with something else where what's taxed is more easily defined.
            WhatsamattaU
          • Collect at POS

            Collect your taxes at the point of sales. Why in the world should my government need every single detail about my financial life if I'm not on government assistance? The IRS is the most intrusive and overbearing agency in the fed.

            Pick and choose what you tax. Don't tax things like food, rent, medical, etc and tax luxury items higher if you want a progressive tax.
            Rann Xeroxx
          • I actually agree

            I think the personal income tax as imposed by the United States and most states is intrusive, time consuming, and inefficient to collect. It is also just too much of a temptation for politicians to all manner of tax breaks and subsidies, thus making the system even more complicated, burdensome, and difficult to enforce. However, I think corporate income taxes should be as high as the market will bear (privacy concerns really don't apply here and professional accountants are keeping the books for any corporation with more than a handful of employees, or should be). Conservatives have emphatically disagreed with me on this before and no doubt will do so again, but limited liability is a government-conferred privilege, not a human right. Corporations exist because governments charter them, but there was such a thing as capitalism before the general purpose corporation and there would continue to be if they were abolished. If the rates are too high (which they probably are now), then the feds lose money as corporations play tricks to try minimize their tax liabilities; thus placing an effective cap on the practical rate.

            Likewise, I think most other user fees (like patent application fees, or pilot's license fees, or broadcast license fees) should be relatively high, so as to fund as much as possible of the operations of the agencies providing the services. This should certainly be true of patent application fees, which, as patents are government-conferred monopolies, should be as high as the market will bear (it's most efficient way to fund the USPTO and prevent abuse of the system). It is the grantees and licensees of such agencies as the FCC, the FAA, and the USPTO that get most of the benefit for such services, so in my humble opinion, it makes sense for them to bear as much of the cost of administering them as is practical (tax money should be spent on things more generally beneficial to the public); and it would make them less subject to changes in the availability of tax revenue; as well as the occasional budget fight.

            Sales taxes are probably high enough in most states without the feds getting involved, but I think a federal tax on interstate and international mail order and Internet purchases, which are hard for states to collect taxes on anyway, would make sense and would help prevent distortions in the market due to differences in state sales tax rates.

            There are other ideas that could be tried to at least partially replace the federal personal income tax, but this is something economists need to weigh in on and I'm not one of those.
            John L. Ries
      • As I suspected

        Federal IT doesn't have much of a lobby (except for contractors), so internal IT operations tend to be underfunded.

        Every penny spent by the US government has a constituency, but some are much larger than others.
        John L. Ries
      • I believe someone's feelings are hurt...

        It's hard to believe that someone from the IRS would have feelings - they certainly don't when you're being audited. Zero compassion for any hardship or record keeping problems; so "sbarman" it's hard for many of us on the other side of the coin to express any "prayer for judgement" for the IRS... especially in light of targeting specific groups to "quiet" them. On the conspiracy note - When the press secretary blames it on two "rogue agents" which turns out not to be true, UN secretary blames an attack which leads to the death of an ambassador on a YouTube video which turns out not to be true, and so on, people tend to see a pattern. I believe you when you say it's more complicated then emails disappearing but it's very hard to swallow with all the other lies that's fed to us. It's even more difficult to take when you whine that IRS has to do so much with so little and we must be understanding while Google handles far more email accounts, when the IRS hands out generous bonuses, and when we see video of ridiculous training weekends in nice hotels. Please consider that people are so sick, no matter what party is in charge, of the nonsense; the problem might in fact be the bureaucrats calling the people they serve morons...
        Jeffreyhughesnc
        • One more point... RE: Sbarman

          ...while we're on - IRS, technology, screw ups. I couldn't stop thinking about your complaint about the IRS's workload. I couldn't stop thinking that the IRS is now handling the ACA on top of collecting taxes... Whose idea was that? Oh yeah, the same person/people who told us we could keep our health care if we liked it - PERIOD! Then there's the whole website exchange debacle... Then there's the VA mess...
          Jeffreyhughesnc
          • If your fund it properly, it will work

            If you don't, it won't. The IRS needs more money, the DOD needs a lot less. BTW, he didn't state it explicitly enough, but anyone studying the ACA to help clients implement it knew very well that you couldn't hang onto your crap plan, it had to meet minimum coverage requirements. Most plans do, some do not. For those people, it's too bad, I don't want my premiums to go up to cover your gall stone surgery because your crap plan doesn't cover it. This only works if everyone has coverage that is at or above the minimum. How comfortable would you be if you were driving around in a city where the local law only required the insured to cover $100 of your medical expenses if they cause an accident and you're injured? It's the same thing here. You need to stop listening to Fox News, their objective is to support the GOP and then get your eyeballs on ads, not to bring you information that is as unbiased as possible (followed by getting your eyeballs on ads).
            WhatsamattaU
      • We will take all this in order

        First, sbarman loses the argument because they simply resort to name-calling. That right there debunks anything else they have to say.
        Second, all politicians and government entitites are indeed corrupt and in fact incompetant. Our Government is simply too big and is totally mismanaged and out of control
        Third, every politician on the planet lies and that goes for the civil servants who eventually report to their corrupt and lying masters
        Fourth, this is simply a case of political strong-arming out of control. It happens all the time in our huge corrupt government world and until the people start throwing ALL these bums out and elect NON-lawyers and NON-politicians it will simply continue.
        BruinB88