Lawmakers Say IRS Still Silent on Reading Citizen Emails Without a Warrant

Critics argue a statement from the IRS does not say whether the agency does or doesn't read emails.

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If you absolutely can't pay, there are two main approaches the IRS suggests.

The IRS issued a short statement last week after internal agency documents were leaked suggesting the IRS read taxpayers' emails without a warrant.

"The IRS does not use emails to target taxpayers. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong," the statement read.

But lawmakers aren't satisfied with the agency's response.

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In one leaked memo, the IRS told its special investigations team that "non-consensual monitoring of electronic communications ... can be used to investigate any federal felony." The Wall Street Journal reports the IRS can also monitor Facebook and Twitter accounts outside of an investigation, such as to look for people who may have lied on their tax returns.

In a letter sent to the IRS April 11, the chairman of the House Committee On Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, Rep. Boustany, R-La., demanded answers from the agency about its policy on searching emails and other electronic communications, how many emails have been searched in the last several years, and what specifically the agency is looking for.

"They made some statement about targeted search, but they have not specifically addressed what was in our letter," GOP Ways and Means Committee press secretary Sarah Swinehart tells Whispers.

On Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined the chorus of concern over the IRS searches.

"I have long believed that our government should obtain a search warrant issued by a court before gaining access to our email and other private communications," Leahy, who is chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said in a statement.

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That committee will soon consider legislation to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows government agencies to obtain personal emails without a warrant so long as they have already been opened or are older than 180 days.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which originally released the internal IRS documents, is also unsatisfied with the revenue agency's response.

"Those four sentences don't answer the question in any way. We'd still call on them to clarify whether in fact they are reading peoples emails," ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler told Whispers. Wessler believes a reform to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is desperately needed to prevent government agencies from reading private emails in the future.

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Aside from its initial statement, the IRS has stayed mum on the issue, though Boustany's letter requests the agency answer his questions within the next two weeks. Dean Patterson, spokesman for the IRS, tells Whisper he believes the agency "will say more" on the issue, though he declines to say what or when.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.