For somebody who ran what could be considered the first political campaign of the digital age, coming into office with a certain savvy and post-modern swagger, Barack Obama’s presidency has been beset by a surprising number of computer glitches.
Of course, there was the botched rollout of the online insurance exchange that accompanied the Affordable Care Act. Considering that the health care overhaul was and is destined to be the most prominent legacy of the Obama presidency, the high-tech failure was rather stunning. Now, the Internal Revenue Service has lost a trove of emails to and from the central figure in the agency’s Tea Party controversy.
Congressional investigators want to see all of Lois Lerner’s work emails from 2009 to 2013 as part of their probe into allegations that the IRS targeted Tea Party groups and other conservative interests. IRS officials acknowledged last year that agents had improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status from some organizations of a particular political bent, and Lerner headed the agency’s Exempt Organizations division. But IRS officials recently informed investigators that Lerner’s computer crashed in 2011, wiping out untold emails.
“Do they really expect the American people to believe that, after having withheld these emails for a year, they’re just now realizing the most critical time period is missing?” asked Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said: “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigations, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’ response to congressional inquiries.” And even CNN got into the act, with host John King asking on the air, “Do you believe in the Easter Bunny? Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe that Lois Lerner’s emails suddenly went poof?”
It’s a classic “The Dog Ate My Homework” defense, and it certainly raises eyebrows. Whether or not the story about a computer crash and lost emails is truthful, the American people deserve better. It took IRS officials a year to discover that the emails were missing? The crash just happened to strike the computer at the center of the controversy? An agency tasked with collecting more than $2 trillion each year and with safeguarding the personal information of more than 200 million taxpayers can’t secure the emails of a high-level official? Whether malfeasance or incompetence, something just doesn’t smell right about the situation.
“A sloppy mistake, the government calls it, but you couldn’t blame a person for suspecting a cover-up . . .” wrote Ron Fournier of National Journal. “If the IRS can’t find the emails, maybe a special prosecutor can.” That is the corner into which the administration has painted itself. While the initial investigation could have been criticized as overly partisan, the missing emails contribute to the impression of impropriety and further demonstrate that what promised to be the most transparent administration in history has fallen far short of that goal. “The only people who don’t want to disclose the truth,” Obama once said, “are people with something to hide.”
We don’t know whether the administration has anything to hide. But we do know that the disappearance of the emails provides fodder for critics who are eager to seize upon any misstep from the administration. And we do know that the Obama presidency has some computer problems.