- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The House and the Senate will hold back-to-back hearings tomorrow to investigate accusations of lax security at the Department of Veterans Affairs that allowed data files containing Social Security numbers and other personal information about millions of veterans to be stolen.

“When you look at the magnitude of this situation … it demands quick action,” said Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, explaining why Congress had so promptly scheduled hearings on a crime that was first publicly reported Monday.

“I am deeply concerned that nearly 27 million veterans may be affected by a security breach that could compromise sensitive, personal information,” said Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The committee will examine this incident in the context of previous data compromises to ensure that veterans’ information is safeguarded.”

The Senate panel has scheduled its hearing for 10 a.m. tomorrow, an hour after the beginning of a hearing by the House committee.

The swift congressional response follows angry reactions by leaders of major veterans groups over press reports that a laptop computer containing sensitive data was stolen earlier this month from the Maryland home of a VA analyst, exposing military veterans to the risk of identity theft.

“This [situation] places virtually all men and women who have served their country at significant risk of identity theft and fraud,” Robert Wallace, executive director of the 1.8-million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, wrote yesterday in a letter to Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate panel, urging hearings “as soon as possible.”

Brooke Adams, a spokeswoman for the House panel, said the committee is eager to “expedite” the inquiry into what happened and ensure it does not happen again.

At its Web site, the VA Office of Inspector General lists numerous cases of security breaches and criminal conduct by VA employees, going back more than a decade.

On Monday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson announced the theft of data files containing the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of millions of veterans discharged from the military since 1975. Mr. Nicholson and other officials said a career VA employee, without proper authorization, took home the information to work on an agency project.

The employee has been placed on administrative leave, VA officials said.

The burglary occurred in a Montgomery County neighborhood that recently has experienced a rash of break-ins, law-enforcement officials said.

Authorities said they do not think the thieves were targeting the VA information. Authorities also were cautious in reporting details of the incident, because the criminals may have failed to realize the significance of the stolen computer. The FBI, the Office of Inspector General and Montgomery County police are investigating the theft.

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