Politics

The IRS Oddities Add Up

Just a flukey, coincidental happenstance?

By 7.11.14

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen (UPI)
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Curiouser and curiouser. It's hard to see how the details of the ongoing IRS investigation could anything but mystify a fair-minded and careful observer.

Yesterday came news that employees at the tax-collecting agency use an internal instant messaging system called OCS, and that conversations held on it are not archived automatically. Further, Lois Lerner, the woman in charge of the department that targeted conservative non-profit groups, had specifically inquired about that very point. “I was cautioning folks about email and how we have had several occasions where Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails — so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails,” she wrote to IT support in 2013. “Someone asked if OCS conversations were also searchable — I don’t know.…Do you know?”

Then there’s the matter of Lerner’s missing email between 2009 and 2011, which the agency says was lost in a hard drive failure. About 24,000 of Lerner’s emails have been reconstructed from copies in other employees’ inboxes. But this strategy offers no way to recover all of her correspondence with those outside the IRS — those, just for the sake of argument, in the White House. When agents began to throw the exceptionally heavy IRS codebook at Tea Party organizations, did Lerner correspond with anyone in the administration, and, if so, did she include in that message a transcription of her own gleeful cackling? We may never know for sure.

And what about the other handful of employees whose computers bit the big one? John Koskinen, IRS commissioner, testified before a House committee last month that of the eighty-two IRS employees tied to the investigation, six, not including Lerner, had hard drives fail in the period under review — for a total of an 8.5 percent failure rate over those years. (The IRS maintains that industry standards indicate an annual failure rate of 3 to 5 percent.) Did those employees lose their email archives as well? Confusion reigns. For instance, the agency’s former chief of staff used both a desktop and a laptop; though the latter crashed, her correspondence and documents should be intact on the former. Koskinen testily told the committee that he will give Congress a complete report when he finishes one. “We are not going to dribble out the information,” he said, “and have it played out in the press.” 

Questions abound, too, about why the information on Lerner’s hard drive was unrecoverable, given the described nature of the problem. Her lawyer, relaying her experience, reported what sounds like the infamous Blue Screen of Death. But Megan McArdle, no technological slouch, writes that 

the Blue Screen of Death is an operating system error. The operating system lives on the hard drive. Which raises a question: If Lerner’s hard drive was so thoroughly malfunctioning that no one could even get the data off of it, how was it booting up far enough for the operating system to malfunction? This is not the description of the problem that I would have expected to hear; I would have expected to hear that her computer wouldn’t really boot up at all, perhaps while horrible grinding noises emanated from its innards. In most cases, a computer displaying the Blue Screen of Death is a computer with a hard drive functioning well enough for data recovery. If I were Lerner's IT support person, I would waste no time in getting the hard drive to a working computer, where I’d connect it as a secondary drive and transfer off all the files, because the Blue Screen of Death is often a harbinger of future hard drive failure. But it was not, in my experience, usually a symptom of the actual failure.

Even accepting the IRS’s statement that the drive had “bad sectors,” the question about possible recovery remains. Take CBS’s word for it:

Tom Hakim of We Recover Data in New York says that even with "bad sectors," the chances of recovering data are very good. "Bad sectors are usually not bad — more likely unstable," he told CBS News.

In Hakim's ten years of experience and roughly 100,000 disk recovery cases, he did find some disks in which the data could not be retrieved: "I'd guess maybe one in 50 cases." […] 

In 2008, Anthony Verducci, a reporter at Popular Mechanics "took two laptop drives, ... beat the heck out of them until we heard the signature clicking of mechanical hard-drive failure. Then we submerged one of the drives in custom- made storm-surge floodwaters (salt water, construction debris, oil) and let it soak for four days." He still got nearly 100 percent data recovery.

Then there’s the timing of the thing. Lois Lerner’s drive reportedly met its maker just 10 days after Congressman Dave Camp sent a letter to the IRS asking about selective targeting. This fact led to a memorable exchange last month between the agency commissioner and Congressman Thomas Massie, who calculated out from the annual hard drive failure rate of 3 to 5 percent cited by Koskinen.

Massie: Was doing a little math here. The probability of that failing in 10 days instead of a year is actually one in 1,000.
Koskinen: That’s not the way probability works. […]
Massie: You can tell me how probability works. I took the class at MIT.
Koskinen: We must’ve taken a different probability class.
Massie: I think so.

How one views all these accumulated incidents depends, apparently, on party affiliation. Is it just a flukey, coincidental happenstance of odds? If things look suspicious, is it only because hardworking civic servants hit bad luck time and again? That seems to be the position of the president’s supporters.

But many on the right, including George Will, think otherwise — and say that the case merits the appointment of a special prosecutor. “Now we know that not only her hard drive, but six other people intimately involved in this suddenly crashed in an amazing miraculous coincidence,” Will said on Fox News. “Religions have been founded on less.”

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About the Author
Kyle Peterson is managing editor of The American Spectator. Email him at petersonk@spectator.org, or follow him on Twitter at @kyleopeterson.