When it comes to accountability questions, one owes the benefit of the doubt to the U.S. government, whoever may be in charge. Managing the massive federal bureaucracy isn’t easy. Responding to the demands from the public, the press and Congress for public information can be time consuming. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief in the multiple instances in which the Obama administration is obstructing the release of, or losing, documents in major investigations.
In Fast and Furious, President Obama declared executive privilege to withhold documents in a controversy that the White House claimed revealed no evidence of White House involvement. Of course, if all the evidence isn’t turned over, then how is one to be confident no evidence exists? Further, multiple federal agencies have refused to turn over many documents requested in the case under the Freedom of Information Act as far back as 2011.
In the instance of Benghazi, the Obama administration failed to turn over requested documents when asked by Congress and requested under Freedom of Information law. Only recently, nearly two years after-the-fact, under court order, did it produce some withheld material to the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which sued the State Department for failing to respond to its Freedom of Information requests. The documents continue to contradict the Obama administration’s narratives surrounding the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks.
With the IRS, President Obama insisted there wasn’t a “smidgen” of corruption surrounding the tax agency’s targeting of conservatives. But a key IRS official, Lois Lerner, refused to testify to Congress. And the IRS “lost” subpoenaed documents generated by Lerner and other key officials. These may include documents that Lerner sent to outside agencies and officials. Though the IRS says it will turn over tens of thousands of other documents, it’s hard to feel confident that the most damning ones, if any existed, will have been miraculously saved.
Now, HHS–which has stonewalled subpoenas and Freedom of Information requests in the investigation of HealthCare.gov–has likewise announced that it probably destroyed some materials that have been subpoenaed in that probe.
Assuming the loss of IRS and HHS materials was accidental, it still begs several questions:
1. Is it reasonable any longer to expect accused federal agencies to conduct their own search for records that could implicate themselves and their top officials?
2. In the case of HHS documents that were not kept: why is “retraining” employees an acceptable remedy? If ordinary Americans were to fail retain documents as required under the law for tax purposes or other reasons, would they be allowed to “retrain” and continue on their way with no repercussions?
3. Specifically, is Ms. Tavenner, as the head of her agency (CMS), being disciplined for this apparent serious breach of federal records retention laws?
4. If federal agencies forgive and “retrain” their employees and top officials for failing to follow federal records retention laws, does the federal government retain the moral authority to prosecute, fine, or otherwise hold accountable ordinary Americans who commit similar infractions?
5. When did HHS (and who at HHS) realize(d) that Tavenner was not following federal records retention processes? How was this information communicated, to whom and when?
6. What searches have been conducted, by whom, and when, to retrieve the Tavenner material that she failed to save? (Aren’t such materials retrievable on archive systems and through ordinary back up methods?)