Following his election President Obama promised to make his White House the most “open” in history. As part of that promise, and in recognition that it didn’t quite live up to its word in its first term, the Obama administration released its second Open Government National Action late last year. In an executive order arising from that new plan the president promised to make government information “easy to find, accessible, and usable.”
Unfortunately, those new pledges have been put to the test over the past week in the investigation of former IRS employee Lois Lerner, a key government official behind the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups.
Last Friday, the IRS informed Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp—who is leading up the investigation of the scandal—that the agency had lost thousands of emails because her hard drive crashed in 2011. And if that wasn’t convenient enough, it didn’t just lose her files, it lost the emails from six more employees, each of whom is alleged to have been involved in targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
The admission rightly prompted skepticism from the media.
“Do you believe in the Easter Bunny?” CNN’s John King asked his panel of political reporters on Monday. “Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe that Lois Lerner’s emails suddenly went ‘poof?’”
“It’s hard to believe in this era, where you have servers, and backup servers, and all kinds of technology that can recover all kinds of emails, that these emails simply don’t exist,” Associated Press reporter Julie Pace agreed. “If that is true, and they don’t exist, why wasn’t that one of the first things that was told to Congress?”
It is hard to believe; but then again this is the same administration that attempted to claim that the Pentagon could not comply with Freedom of Information Act requests because its fax machine broke. And not only that, the Office of the Secretary of Defense claims that it needed up to six weeks before they could buy a new one. The entire situation got so comical that there was a campaign to begin a Kickstarter campaign in order to crowdfund a new fax machine.
Nevertheless, as Patrick Howley reported for the Daily Caller, the IRS is required by federal law to maintain records of IRS emails and even print out copies to ensure they are available in the case of an emergency.
“If you create or receive email messages during the course of your daily work, you are responsible for ensuring that you manage them properly,” according to the IRS. “The Treasury Department’s current email policy requires emails and attachments that meet the definition of a federal record be added to the organization’s files by printing them (including the essential transmission data) and filing them with related paper records. If transmission and receipt data are not printed by the email system, annotate the paper copy.”
And according to testimony given under oath by current IRS commissioner John Koskinen in March, the emails are “all stored somewhere” and that somewhere, unlike the recent claims by the IRS is not on an individual hard drive, but is rather “stored in servers.”
So either the all-too-convenient loss of emails is evidence of a corrupt attempt to prevent the world from knowing exactly who was giving Lois Lerner her marching orders, or this is government incompetence at its absolute worse. Sadly, as Ron Fournier writes for National Journal, that’s exactly the question we’ve been trying to answer since the start of this scandal.
Nothing has changed. The White House is stonewalling the IRS investigation. The most benign explanation is that Obama’s team is politically expedient and arrogant, which makes them desperate to change the subject and convinced of their institutional innocence. That’s bad enough. But without a fiercely independent investigation, we shouldn’t assume the explanation is benign.
Nope, we shouldn’t. And that’s sad, especially coming from the most transparent administration in history.