Is the IRS lost email story plausible?

Is the IRS lost email story plausible?

Summary: The initial news that the IRS had lost two years of Lois Lerner's email seemed preposterous. It had to be a lie. But it's worse than that: It could be true.

TOPICS: Government US

How you feel about the scandal of the IRS targeting Tea Party organizations may depend on your politics generally, but if you're in IT you certainly took notice when the news came out last week that the IRS had lost many of Lois Lerner's emails between January 2009 and April 2011.

Lerner had been director of exempt organizations and at the center of the affair.

The central event cited as the cause of the loss was (pp. 14-15 of the letter from the IRS to Congress) an unrecoverable hard drive crash on Ms. Lerner's computer in mid-2011, early in the development of the affair. How, you might ask, should the state of her personal computer matter in an organization of 90,000 employees? Surely their email is on servers and surely they have backup and archival polices, right? That's what I thought, so I wondered how the emails could be lost.

Then I read the actual document. I've also followed analysis by others, such as Bloomberg's Megan McArdle, herself a former Microsoft Exchange administrator. A consensus has emerged: Only a profoundly IT-incompetent organization could lose emails in this way, and the IRS appears to be that organization.

I don't think we can feel confident of the facts in this case yet, or of the accuracy of the information provided by the IRS, even if we assume it was produced honestly and forthrightly. Consider this statement (on page 10 of the document):

"The IRS email system runs on Microsoft Outlook. Each of the Outlook email servers are located at one of three IRS data centers."

The servers are, as you may have guessed, Microsoft Exchange servers. Nowhere in the 27 page document does the word "Exchange" appear, even though Exchange is at least as central to the story as Outlook. This makes me wonder about the level of technical proficiency of the authors of the document, and therefore the accuracy of the information in it.

To assume that the information is accurate is faint praise for the IRS. The document describes policies that range from cheap to baffling. Prior to May 2013, the IRS did daily tape backups of the server mail databases. They reused the tapes after six months to save money (the change in policy in May 2013 to retain tapes cost $200,000 according to the document).

Combine this with several other facts: At the time of the Lerner crash, the IRS allowed a user maximum of 500MB, which is not a whole lot. When users approached their maximum they were told to delete messages from Outlook to make room (page 11; emphasis mine):

"When a user needs to create space in his or her email box, the user has the option of either deleting emails (that do not qualify as official records) or moving them out of the active email box (inbox, sent items, deleted items) to an archive. In addition, if an email qualifies as an official record, per IRS policy, the email must be printed and placed in the appropriate file by the employee. Archived email is moved off the IRS email server and onto the employee's hard drive on the employee's individual computer."

There's a lot in this document to make you scratch your head, but this last statement just about makes my head explode. This is an official records retention policy? I don't know about you, but I fear for the republic.

Not only are the important records stored in dead tree databases, but the rest of the email, assuming it hasn't been deleted, is stored on PSTs on the user's computer. This opens up myriad opportunities for employees to manipulate records and no meaningful way to stop it.

The policy explanation also clears up another big question, the first one asked by Congressional Republican leaders after the IRS response was analyzed: How could it have taken a year to determine all this and to produce what records they have produced? Any Exchange admin knows that if you have a few search terms, you run a few searches and you get your results. Unfortunately, the document requests from the Congressional committees asked for messages more than six months old.

This entails reading paper files and searching individual PST files on users' computers. These PSTs and all the older messages in them are lost if the hard disk crashes, as Lerner's allegedly did.

The Lerner hard drive crash is not the only unrecoverable disaster preventing the IRS from complying: Six other IRS workers had hard drive crashes which lost their emails. Here's another good one (page 7, footnote):

"We have been informed that in a broad migration of computer systems from Windows XP to Windows 7, Outlook calendar information from before 2012 was lost."

I could go on for a long time about the descriptions, but it all comes down to one conclusion: If IRS IT actually operates in the way described in the document provided by the IRS to Congress, then it's perfectly reasonable to believe that they lost Lerner's emails.

Topic: Government US

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  • Unfortunately: totally plausible

    I work at a small goverrnment agency and our email works almost the same way, but worse!! We only have 40 MB of on-server storage. FORTY MEGABYTES. We do not deal with vital records so we have no employee-level retention policies.

    I cannot speak to the agency back-up procedure, but any email not on the server is subject to loss because it is stored in PST files on the local machine.
    • wow

      "We only have 40 MB of on-server storage."

      What are they using for server storage, floppy disks O.o?
      • Yup

        I have no idea!!!! The claim is we are moving to Office 365 later this year and will have 25GB. We'll see!
    • No, it is NOT PLAUSIBLE

      Lois Lerner and SIX other key IRS employess "lost" their emails TEN DAYS after Rep. David Camp sent a letter to the IRS asking if conservative groups had been targeted. And the IRS didn't tell anyone that the emails were supposedly "lost" until a year later.

      If they'd immediately acknowledged that the emails were "missing," it would have rendered the "no backups" excuse even more ridiculous and spectacularly fake than it is right now. Really? No backups of emails from TEN DAYS ago? They knew they couldn't put that over under any circumstances. But the "Hey, that was a year ago, dude...They're gone," they thought they might be able to sell.

      The IRS had plenty of time and resources to recover any emails at that time, materials that they knew were relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. Yet they didn't say the emails were lost until a year later! And, hey sorry, but no backups older than six months. How freaking convenient.

      Think about that very, very carefully. IT IS NOT PLAUSIBLE.

      They knew they, the IRS (and Lerner specifically), were being investigated and they "lost" the emails and covered up the alleged "loss" for a full year.

      This is a criminal conspiracy by an administration and a bureaucracy who think they can do literally whatever they want and get away with it. As apathetic and dumb as most Americans are, they may be right.
      • Either way

        Seems like they are rife with both incompetence AND guilty of a cover up.

        I would also point out that if businesses are required to maintain archival systems for record retention and legal discovery, why don't we hold our government to the same standards?

        Buy hey, I'm with you. Way to convenient. What would be really interesting is if they performed an org-wide audit of all email to see the percentage of loss. I bet these would be the few and only people with this problem ;-)
      • No

        1) No Tea Party group actually was ever denied 501(c)(4) status when all was said and done, despite many if not most of these groups being blatantly and primarily political organizations, and hence ineligible.

        2) Outlook/Exchange systems should have all died out the last century - these were never more than proprietary, deliberately incompatible heaps of high maintenance rubbish code, and the Golden Goose of Microsoft's earlier monopolistic endeavors.
        • They didn't have to...

          1) The IRS de facto denied Tea Party groups BY NEVER GIVING THEM APPROVAL. They just kept them in limbo forever. In the end, it's the same thing.

          MoveOn.Org and Media Matters are given tax exempt status by the IRS and they are aggressively, intensely, hyper political against Republicans and conservatives. They are very well funded and directly tied in to the Democratic Party and to left wing political groups. So it's one standard for the arrogant, fascistic left in America and a different standard for everyone else.

          David Brock and other left wing millionaires can buy all the influence they want but you and others want to block Wanda Funkelbaum in Noplace, Nebraska from forming a Tea Party group because she's "blatantly political." Nice values.

          By the way, Tea Party groups were largely responsible for getting REPUBLICAN Eric Cantor ejected from office last week. Who the **** are you to say who gets to be political in this country and in what way? Who made you god? Do you seriously believe you or the IRS have a legal right to do that? You don't have the constitutional right to block them and neither does the IRS.

          2) Totally irrelevant dodge that has nothing to do with the actual chain of events. The IRS had backups ten days after receiving the investigatory letters from Congress when all these computers of these key figures allegedly crashed and yet, for some mysterious reason, they chose not to retrieve the info.

          As it turns out, Sonasoft ("Email archiving done right") has had a contract with the IRS since 2005. We'll see if they "lost" the emails to "computer crashes" also.

          Nope, nothing suspicious here:

          "IRS Official Whose Emails Were 'Lost' Visited White House More Than 30 Times"

          • Geez....

            Uh-uh. Some Tea Party groups apparently withdrew instead of waiting, but your first point is a lie -- they were all approved at the end, even the groups who were blatantly political groups, and hence technically ineligible for 501(c)(4) status. Among people who aren't complete dummies about all this, the real scandal is in how all these political groups got 501(c)(4) when they were obviously not qualified for it, which cost the government revenue it can't afford to lose. Also it turns out that all that grandstanding nonsense by House Republicans pretending to be investigating this pretend crisis ended up costing the IRS about $10 million in taxpayer money to deal with all the paperwork demands. And ironically, $10 million happens to be about the amount of money the IRS needs to upgrade their aging Exchange system.

            Gawd, I wish all online sites would have a "Right Wing Free" day once a month to allow for intelligent, on point discussions for a change.
          • Please, more facts and honesty on your part, thanks....

            "[B]ut your first point is a lie -- they were all approved at the end."

            No, that's a lie. Some of them still have not been approved:

            "Tea Party Patriots may have raised over $2 million last year, but the group is still awaiting a verdict from the Internal Revenue Service on its tax-exempt status. Jenny Beth Martin, the group’s president, says Tea Party Patriots filed an application seeking tax exemption in 2010 and, more than three years later, it remains in limbo."


            Further, the NY Times - that bastion of hard right Tea Party dogma - points out that approvals for any Tea Party groups only began in a "flurry" after Rep. Dave Camp pressed the IRS about their repression of conservative groups:

            "The flurry of approvals that came in the next few months was a sharp break from the previous two years, during which the agency approved just a handful of 501(c)(4) applications from Tea Party groups."


            "During the entire two-year span — from March 2010, when the agency began singling out conservative groups, to April 2012, just before it received Mr. Camp’s letter and changed its search criteria for the last time — the I.R.S. approved the applications of just four groups with those conservative keywords in their names....As a point of comparison, we tried to identify liberal groups approved for 501(c)(4) status since 2010....The I.R.S. approved these groups at a fairly steady rate from 2010 through 2012."


            And, as I pointed out in another post, the IRS's $2.2 billion dollar tech budget is more than enough to cover email backups for the entire department. Try not to be any more asinine than you already are.

            Blaming everything on the 501(c)(4) statute is yet another deflection. It's meant to draw attention away from Obama administration behavior that is not only criminal but a gross offense to American ideals of free speech and free assembly. Administering the 501(c)(4) law in bad faith doesn't make it a bad law; the bad faith and criminality that you give your approval to is what is making it a bad law.

            "Gawd, I wish all online sites would have a 'Right Wing Free' day once a month to allow for intelligent, on point discussions for a change."

            You're certainly right in character with your friends at the IRS and with the mindset of the left in general. You'd like to silence those you disagree with at the same time you can't be relied upon to be honest or get your facts straight.
      • Plausible? Not sure yet.

        I will agree, it is unlikely that all 7 computer hard drives crashed however my their is also wording that the computers were upgraded and all data prior to the upgrade was lost. This is very plausible.

        Also, in many large Exchange deployments email retention is significantly minimized because, well, Exchange is a terrible system that does not scale well. At my company, I need to take special actions if I want to keep email around for more than 30 days, otherwise it goes bye bye.

        When this story first broke, I immediately thought this was a crock is BS like when the Whitehouse lost millions of emails a decade ago. After reading this article, and applying it to my experience in the Enterprise (multiple fortune 50), it think it is possible their is a legitimate explanation. I will wait for more facts (details) to come out before jumping to a conclusion.
  • Fire someone!

    Then fire the IT person that is responsible for backing up the emails / servers. The IRS wants us to keep our tax records for Years!!!! What's good for the goose if good for the gander.
    • You can always fire your Congressman

      Money for things like better computer equipment seems to be a luxury item that Big Bad Government, especially the horrific IRS, can easily do without.

      We can argue all day long about the proper scope of government, but there's no excuse for not giving the government we do have the resources it needs to properly do the jobs we've given it.
      John L. Ries
      • We don't know that

        I doubt congressional appropriations specify down to the level of email policy. It may be that IT money is being flushed down some other IT rat-hole instead.
        • Actually...

          ...I think funds for computer equipment and software do have to be specifically appropriated. There is a lot of detail in federal appropriations bills; that's part of why it takes them so long to pass. Probably too much (one can never be too careful in making sure Big Bad Government only spends the money one wants it to spend).
          John L. Ries
    • I absolutely agree.

      If they don't have a system to archive messages in perpetuity, then the tax payers should not be required to either. If they're dumping messages after 6 months, then we have no need to keep tax records any longer than that either.
      • uhmm

        We are talking about email here, not official records. Exchange simply doesn't scale for perpetual email archival for any reasonable amount of time.
  • It all stinks

    Notice how no one is held responsible for anything in D.C. and all the paper and electronic trails go cold? What does your instincts tell you to believe? Trust your instincts, this whole thing stinks.
    Rann Xeroxx
    • Wait..

      I will wait to see what facts come out, I chose to use my brain.
  • Oh come on! You think this is plausable, Larry?

    Emails are a two way street. In order to believe this story, one would have to believe the computers and servers that her emails were sent to ALSO suffered a catastrophic email erasure. And JUST her emails alone. This whole story of the "erased" emails stinks to high heaven.
    • Apparently you missed the parts about

      "we reuse backup tapes after 6 months to save money" and "once you get near your maximum server space, either print it out or move it off the server to your own hard disk." Once those happen ... no backups are available.

      One of the things that really ticked of Johnny Carson was that in 1975 NBC erased ALL its old video tapes, including the Tonight Show, to save money by reusing the tapes.

      If you think about it -- how much disk space and backup storage is necessary for NINETY THOUSAND people? And remember -- EACH backup DOUBLES the amount of storage required.

      These agencies -- and by no means is it limited to IRS -- are severely underfunded for the jobs they are tasked with. Whether they like it or not, they won't get more money, and they MUST perform CERTAIN functions. So the only thing they can do is CUT CORNERS.

      Most of the times when they cut corners it's not a problem. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where ultimately -- FOR A *SMALL* PORTION OF THE *OVERALL* EMAILS -- it IS a problem.