Congressional Republicans are hunting for hard drives, smartphones and maintenance logs that they think could yield emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner.
Two House committees — Ways and Means and Oversight — are investigating IRS claims that Lerner’s hard drive failed in 2011, likely erasing emails they believe to be relevant to their probe of the scrutiny that was given to Tea Party groups.
The IRS says backup copies of the emails no longer exist because until last year, it only kept such tapes for six months before recycling them.
The agency has yet to say what became of Lerner’s hard drive, though Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and several GOP aides say they have been told the drive no longer exists.
Lerner, the central figure in the IRS controversy, and other agency staffers discussed the drive going to the “hard drive cemetery” in 2011 if its contents couldn’t be saved, according to emails released Friday.
Some technology experts say the hard drive would be the only way to retrieve Lerner’s emails if the IRS did not keep a backup.
“If they have a locked-down email system like that, I don’t know that there’s any other way to get email from a different source,” said Michael Hall, the chief information security officer with the data recovery firm DriveSavers. “Those are the sources.”
“The only absolute definitive last-ditch, best-shot effort would be the original hard drive,” he added. “But if it’s not around, then it’s not around.”
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) don’t believe the records are lost, and are hitting the IRS with several new requests.
Issa has subpoenaed the IRS for Lerner’s hard drive plus any internal communication at the agency that was given to Congress on why the emails aren’t recoverable.
Aides to Issa said the subpoena would force the IRS to prove what happened to the hard drive.
Camp and Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), a senior Ways and Means member, said Wednesday that it was “a little too convenient” that Lerner’s emails disappeared like “poof.”
The two Republicans have said that the IRS can’t produce emails from six other officials, further threatening their investigation.
“We need to know where these computers are, who looked at them and when,” Camp and Boustany said in a Wednesday statement.
Issa has also subpoenaed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who is testifying on Friday before Ways and Means. Koskinen is expected to receive sharp questions about the IRS’s email policies and its attempts to recover Lerner’s emails.
A GOP aide at Ways and Means said Republicans would likely ask Koskinen about internal logs at the IRS having to do with computer maintenance, and what sort of information those records might have about Lerner’s hard drive.
The IRS is far from the first government office to have email trouble. Former President George W. Bush’s White House, for instance, also came under fire for missing emails during the U.S. attorneys’ controversy in 2007.
The agency says that employees can only keep around 6,000 emails in their inbox, a cap necessary because of the IRS’s roughly 90,000 employees.
Before July 2011, not long after the IRS says Lerner’s hard drive crashed, the cap was 1,800 emails. The IRS says it was able to recover around 24,000 emails involving Lerner through the accounts of other agency employees.
Still, some experts say there’s a chance of recovering forensic evidence about her messages.
It might be possible to salvage some information from the original backup tapes, said Giovanni Masucci, the president and senior digital forensic examiner at National Digital Forensics.
It all depends whether or not the IRS used a magnetic process to wipe the tapes clean, known as degaussing. If they did, any information on the tapes would be gone.
“Anything is potentially recoverable, whether it’s been wiped or not,” he said. “But I have to tell you, if it’s degaussed, if it’s been done the right way, you’re not going to get the data back.”
The House Oversight Committee has also subpoenaed all of Lerner’s computers and smartphones from 2009 to 2013, which might provide some evidence if she used them to read her email. Plus, there could be traces on the original email server from before it was backed up to the tapes.
“There should be some kind of email trace,” Masucci said, especially because the IRS relies on Microsoft Outlook.
“As an examiner we love Microsoft because it leaves traces everywhere,” he added. “So we’re able to look into different areas of a server and the computer to find data — residual data.”
But Hall of DriveSavers wasn’t so sure, saying that even metadata information, such as a record of where an email was sent to and from, would be lost without the original devices.
Hall said it was doubtful that any of the other devices that Oversight subpoenaed would shed much light on Lerner’s emails.
“Email is not going to go through an external device,” he said. “There would be no default reason for it to be there or to be placed there in the first place.”
The White House says it can’t help with the GOP’s search.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that the administration had found no emails between Lerner and White House staffers in the more than two-year span before Lerner’s computer crashed in 2011.
On three occasions, somebody else emailed both Lerner and White House officials, Carney added. Two of those emails were seeking tax assistance, and the third was spam.
“We found zero emails — sorry to disappoint — between Lois Lerner and anyone within the [Executive Office of the President] during this period,” Carney said.