- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Veterans Affairs data analyst who lost the personal data of 26.5 million veterans improperly took the information home for three years before the data was stolen, government investigators told Congress yesterday.

In a pair of hearings, VA Inspector General George Opfer detailed a series of missteps leading to one of the nation’s largest information security breaches. He noted that his office only became aware of the May 3 burglary through office gossip.

“We were never notified,” Mr. Opfer told Senate and House panels investigating the breach, explaining that one of his employees first heard about a burglary — and that VA electronic records may have been stolen — while attending a routine meeting on May 10.

“It wasn’t until we interviewed the employee on the 15th that we knew we had a significant problem” involving a vast cache of Social Security numbers, birth dates and disability ratings, Mr. Opfer said. Only then did the VA bring in local and federal law enforcement to investigate.

The disclosure comes as the VA is under attack for a three-week delay in publicizing the burglary. During the hearing, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said he was “mad as hell” that employees did not tell him about the breach until May 16.

He acknowledged that Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield knew immediately about the incident. But he declined to say whether Mr. Mansfield would be fired or how the theft could have happened, citing the need to await results of a full investigation.

“As a veteran, I am outraged. Frankly I’m mad as hell,” Mr. Nicholson said. “I can’t explain the lapses of judgment on the behalf of my people. We will stay focused on these problems until we get them fixed.”

Lawmakers were skeptical.

“The testimony you gave us is absolutely baffling,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “You seem to be saying it was just one employee. But it’s not just one employee. You have a high-risk vulnerable system that has been identified time and again as vulnerable.”

At the House hearing, Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat, was even more blunt.

“Your own people don’t tell you about the theft involving 26 million veterans. You say you take responsibility but then you tell veterans to go call your creditors,” he said.

“You’re not taking responsibility for this mismanagement debacle,” Mr. Filner said.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said yesterday that wasn’t going to happen.

“He’ll have his opportunity to testify on Capitol Hill today,” Mr. Snow said of Mr. Nicholson.

Congress is trying to determine whether the VA had adequate security measures in place to guard against the unauthorized disclosure of veterans’ Social Security numbers and birth dates.

A $50,000 reward is being offered by the FBI and the VA for information that leads to the recovery of a laptop computer and external hard drive that contained the veterans’ information.


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