VA defends its IT recovery plans

As lawmakers question VA’s slowness to act, officials say they have a sound security plan

VA awards contracts

The Veterans Affairs Department has awarded several contracts and plans to award others, all of them geared to supporting its new information security strategies. They include contracts for:


  • Port security and device control. Awarded in September to Sword and Shield for $6.7 million, the contract includes licenses, maintenance and support for Sanctuary software for one year plus four option years.

  • Rights management services (RMS). Awarded in September to IBM for $5.2 million, the contract includes secure e-mail attachments for desktop PCs and RMS functionality for Research in Motion BlackBerry devices for one year plus two option years.

  • Host integration technology. Awarded in September to Merlin Technical Solutions for $13.4 million, the contract includes help for securing VA’s Internet communications and standardized terminal emulator technology.

  • Standard desktop lease. Awarded in August to Dell for $248.5 million for desktop PCs for five years, this contract also calls for Dell to test VA’s standard configuration for desktop PCs.

— Mary Mosquera

The Veterans Affairs Department has rejected a piecemeal approach to fixing its information technology security vulnerabilities, and, because of that, VA has moved slower than oversight officials want, said Robert Howard, VA’s chief information officer.

“You obviously have to get it done right away, but you need to think it through,” Howard said. “You need to properly test it.”
VA has begun implementing a comprehensive plan that includes awarding new contracts for security solutions, such as computer port monitoring, Howard said.

VA has been under fire for data security gaps since a 2006 breach exposed the sensitive data of millions of veterans. Lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office and VA’s Office of Inspector General have criticized the agency’s executives for their slow response to protecting sensitive data.

VA is implementing a comprehensive IT security plan at the same time it is reorganizing and centralizing its IT offices, Howard said. The IT reorganization, which should be completed in July 2008, will let VA apply uniform security policies, he said.

VA also is acquiring technology to reinforce its IT security policies and procedures, but it isn’t going to buy products piecemeal, said Charles De Sanno, associate deputy assistant secretary of infrastructure engineering in VA’s CIO office. De Sanno is also executive director of VA’s enterprise infrastructure engineering and northeast operations in New York.

Earlier this year, VA began evaluating product capability and interoperability in its New York region and testing products in the field.

“We’re trying to get it right,” De Sanno said. “We’re trying to have this ecosystem of products to secure the environment.”

De Sanno said he anticipates that VA will request proposals later this month or in early November for a data-protection contract, and it will make an award in early 2008. With that acquisition, he said, VA expects to begin enforcing policies such as whether to automatically allow large file transfers or request senders’ electronic signatures before authorizing access to certain data.

When VA shared its plans with lawmakers at a recent hearing, they expressed impatience with VA’s progress. One lawmaker, however, said IT security and centralization are complicated and cannot be completed overnight. “I am heartened by many of the steps the VA has undertaken but remain concerned that more should and could be done faster,” said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

GAO officials said they have concerns about the slow pace of VA’s security improvements. VA has implemented only four of GAO’s 26 data security recommendations, said Valerie Melvin, director of human capital and management information systems issues at GAO.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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