VA's 'user's manual for hackers'

Hackers could exploit at least 18 vulnerable spots in computer systems at

the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an internal VA memo.

The memo is so sensitive that it has been described as a "user's manual

for hackers" by some government officials who have read it, and it has not

been released to the public.

VA information system security is so weak that it continues to be a target

for unauthorized access and destruction of data, said Richard Griffin, the

VA's inspector general, speaking before the House Veterans Affair Committee's

Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday.

Among the problems are old passwords belonging to employees who left government

four or five years ago, according to sources. Two months ago, the VA instituted

a policy of changing passwords every three months and using characters besides

letters for the password. But that may not be enough to prevent hacking.

Last week, the "Love Bug" attack on more than a dozen government agencies

forced the VA to shut down its e-mail system for 24 hours, disabling communications

with VA hospitals across the country, Griffin said.

Joel Willemssen of the General Accounting Office, who also testified, gave

the VA a barely passing grade for its computer system. Among the problems

Willemssen cited:

* The VA has not implemented a departmentwide computer strategy.

* Its master veterans record project (Vetsnet) is not operational.

* The department cannot account for the $1 billion its spends each year

on information technology.

"In short, they can't balance the books," said the subcommittee chairman,

Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.).

The VA has "wasted hundreds of millions of dollars," Everett said. "Its

performance departmentwide is completely unacceptable. You just couldn't

get away with it in the real world."

The VA is seeking $1.4 billion for fiscal 2001 for IT, an increase from

$1.2 billion in fiscal 2000.

Meanwhile as security concerns grow, the Senate defense authorization bill

includes $78 million to train college students in cyberdefense skills.

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