First the IRS… Now the EPA?

Sometimes the irony of events on Capitol Hill is almost laughable. Under the dated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, federal authorities have the vast authority to obtain 180 day-old emails without a warrant. This blatant violation of our civil liberties has prompted 220 congressmen to co-sponsor the Email Privacy Act at the urging of the American people. Though government agencies can easily acquire old emails from third party servers, they’ve seemed to have lost their own key public documents.

Government agencies must be particularly meticulous with the records they keep. Official email correspondences are supposed to be printed and filed. Only some of Lois Lerner’s emails have been found in this manner, but the ones that Congress is requesting are gone. When her hard drive supposedly collapsed in 2011, the IRS was supposed to notify the National Archives based on the Federal Records Act. But according to the U.S. Archivist David Ferriero, the IRS did no such thing.

There is almost no chance that she is telling the truth when Lois Lerner testifies that she cannot find these emails. All professional email services have backups and servers where those emails could easily be recovered. According to IT expert Norman Cillo, “If the IRS’ email server is in such a state that they only have one copy of data and the server crashes and it’s gone, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

The emails which the House of Representatives is urging the IRS to recover would reveal to what extent the targeting of Tea Party groups extended into the Obama administration. These emails must exist. Because Lerner is hiding them, they are likely to contain politically damaging information. During Ferriero’s hearing, Representative Lujan asked him, “Do you think that records retention is a problem exclusive to the IRS?” Well Ms. Lujan, the story gets better.

Records retention is not a problem exclusive to the IRS. The EPA also struggles with this problem (among others). Representative Darrell Issa is urging the EPA to release documents which Congress subpoenaed in November of last year. These documents are supposed to show that the White House interfered with other congressional investigations into the EPA. After over a half year, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy still says that she is working with her staff to recover these documents.

Can you guess what some of these documents are? Yep, emails which disappeared after another hard drive crash. This time, the emails were from the EPA Ecologist Phillip North regarding a controversial plan to veto the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay of Alaska before there was even an application for a permit. The plan was vetoed because of a biased assessment relating to the fishing industry. Phillip North’s hard drive conveniently crashed in 2010, around the same time that the veto occurred. Even more timely, North has retired and moved to New Zealand since then. McCarthy, like Lerner, claims that the emails are gone because the hard drive is. But as we’ve learned, there is almost no way that is possible.

During Issa’s hearing, Representative Bentivolio asked, “What is it with bureaucrats and public employees … the hard drives crash?” Good question. In an earlier era, this excuse might have been acceptable. But in an age of technological innovation and cloud services, the traditional ways that governments can cover their tracks are gone. Of course, the government will always find new ways to hide its greed for power. Even though the emails of Lois Lerner and Gina McCarthy have not been revealed, their deception has been.