It’s looking like we’ll never know for sure what was in those Internal Revenue Service emails that were lost after a hard drive crashed in mid-2011. It’s also worth noting that government emails have been going missing for years.
In 2007, the Bush White House acknowledged it had lost some 5 million emails. At that time, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., suspected foul play, comparing the loss to the 18 minutes of missing Nixon tape and charging the excuse was “like saying, 'The dog ate my homework.'"
This time around, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of the IRS loss, “Please, let’s just skip past the ‘dog ate my homework’ excuses,” and plenty of people have likened it to the missing Nixon tape.
“Torture” memos of Bush-administration lawyer John Yoo were declared missing in 2010, as well as Securities and Exchange Commission emails in the Bernie Madoff case, according to Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that earlier this week called for investigations into government record keeping.
Disappearing emails actually go back to the Clinton administration, even though Bill Clinton himself only sent two emails as president.
According to Politico, investigations into the Monica Lewinsky affair were stymied by technological errors.
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and congressional investigators encountered a series of problems retrieving Clinton White House emails. A huge volume of messages was never properly archived because a technician typed “MAIL2” instead of “Mail2.” Another glitch caused a failure to archive messages from every White House staffer whose first name started with the letter “D,” because someone typed it as a “J.”
As with the current IRS mess, Clinton White House backup tapes proved to be of limited value because they were recycled every three weeks until the archiving problems were discovered.
Email archiving issues have also complicated a variety of legal matters in recent years, according to Politico.
An important distinction in the current case: These are agency, not White House, emails. One piece of information lawmakers were hoping to discern from the correspondence was whether Lois Lerner, the now-retired chief of IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, was taking orders from anyone in the White House (through official email channels). Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday said they searched all emails to and from the Executive Office of the President and found no direct communications with Lerner during that time. So that settles that.
One difference with the IRS' missing emails: Technology should be that much better in this day and age. Though they weren't there in 2009, policies are now in place to help agencies improve their information technology systems, and the technology is there. It really shouldn’t be happening anymore.