COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 18, 2014 — As early as November of last year, a CNN poll found that 53% of Americans believe Barack Obama is not honest or trustworthy.
An April Fox News poll found that 60% of American voters think he lies to the country on important matters some or most of the time. Small wonder then that when the White House deploys “the dog ate my homework” excuse to try to cover for the IRS, which isn’t releasing key Lois Lerner emails to Congress, people aren’t buying it.
Lerner’s computer hard drive crashed in early 2011.
“Sometimes stuff just happens,” she wrote in an email to the technical staff.
Voi’la! Instant excuse for not turning over two years’ worth of emails.
The only problem is that it is inherently unbelievable. “I think it’s entirely reasonable. And it’s fact,” said the new White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest. “You’ve never heard of a computer crashing before?”
Clearly, he has no idea what email systems are like. At least he understands the importance of being earnest.
Let’s pretend for a moment that the hard drive crash really happened. That doesn’t seem like much of a stretch since emails between Lerner and the IT support staff have miraculously survived.
Let’s also pretend that the emails of 6 other IRS employees, including former Chief of Staff Nikole Flax, also weren’t reportedly lost in crashes or that the administration as a whole doesn’t have a record of foot-dragging when it comes to dealing with Congress.
In short, let’s give everyone involved the benefit of good intentions and a willingness to cooperate.
After all, sometimes the dog really does eat the homework.
Email is a critical form of communication in today’s world. It is the lifeblood of organizations and for that reason is considered a mission-critical application. IT staff know this.
It is so critical that government agencies are required to retain electronic records almost indefinitely. U.S. law (44 U.S.C. 33) requires that agencies notify the Archivist of the United States of any records that are destroyed and the reasons for destroying them.
All federal agencies publish regulations for the use of email: the IRS regulation is available online. It’s pretty clear: you get a 500MB mailbox—not huge by today’s standards, but terribly small either—and you can reduce the size of your mailbox by archiving old email.
To comply with retention requirements, federal regulations establish strict recoverability and redundancy requirements. Disposal of records outside these standards requires permission in writing.
In short, if emails were destroyed purposefully, someone has serious explaining to do.
Hard drives do crash. They are quite robust these days and crashes are rare; usually, 95% of drives will last three years—which is the average replacement cycle for desktop computers.
How unfortunate for Ms. Lerner and Ms. Flax to both experience crashes in 2011.
To maintain the reliability and availability of this critical resource, the IRS reportedly uses the Microsoft Exchange email server and Outlook email client on the desktop.
The record copy of your mailbox resides on the server, not the local computer.
The servers are backed up with Symantec NetBackup. Exchange operates with clustered servers for redundancy and usually stores email databases on large storage devices which are internally redundant. The backups, of which there are usually several, provide additional redundancy. In addition to all that, an email has both a sender and a receiver.
While some of Ms. Lerner’s emails may have been lost, no doubt many exist in recipient mailboxes.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
When a hard drive crashes, it’s because the read/write arm touches a spinning disk inside the drive, making at least part of the disk unreadable and bringing the whole thing to a screeching halt. Some sectors will be destroyed but most will not be. Emails about the recovery attempts said none of the hard drive was recoverable—extremely unlikely.
It is more likely that forensic recovery of the data was not worth the effort because it existed elsewhere.
Another excuse offered by the IRS is that the backup data tapes were overwritten every six months. Nobody uses tape backup any more. And even if they did, it’s beside the point: backups are only meant to be temporary.
Long term storage is the archival copy.
For this excuse to be real, the dog would have had to eat every bit of the homework, which in the case of email exists in multiple file systems in multiple locations. The problem with email is not so much “losing” it as trying to get rid of it completely when you really want to.
“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four
Clearly, then, the simple fact that remains is that one accident that destroyed one copy of some emails on one client computer did not destroy everything completely.
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