Congress to quiz top VA officials

Lawmakers riled by IG report on response to laptop theft

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and VA Inspector General George Opfer can expect tough questioning July 20 when they appear before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to explain the department’s handling of the theft of a laptop PC and hard drive from an employee’s home and the potential compromise of some 26.5 million personal records.

VA officials “acted with indifference and little sense of urgency” in dealing with the theft, according to Opfer’s report. Nicholson will also testify at a House hearing July 18.

Lawmakers and some veterans groups are concerned despite the recovery of the stolen items June 28. An FBI forensic exam indicated that the personal records most likely had not been accessed or compromised.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the committee’s chairman, called the hearing after the release of Opfer’s 68-page report last week.

Craig called the IG report “a stinging indictment of a security system that was lax to nonexistent.” He said he wants top-ranking officials “to spell out exactly what they have done and what they intend to do to protect the data of our nation’s veterans.”

Committee spokesman Jeff Schrade said senators want to find a way to avoid future security lapses and provide veterans with some form of protection against data theft. The panel will seek a fuller account of what the VA is doing to prevent another “dumb thing that ought not happen,” he said.

The IG’s report particularly criticized Michael McLendon, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the VA, and his superior, Dennis Duffy, former acting assistant secretary for policy, planning and preparedness. Both men have since left the department.

McLendon rewrote the employee’s account of the incident in “an attempt to mitigate the risk of misuse of the stolen data,” the IG’s report states. McLendon learned of the theft May 3, told Duffy of his intention to rewrite the employee’s account and submitted the revised version to Duffy on May 8, according to the report.

McLendon also claimed a software program protected the stolen data by making access difficult. “This, however, was not the case,” the report states.

The IG’s office also blamed Duffy for failing to perceive the importance of the incident and not talking to the employee personally.

McLendon and Duffy bear responsibility “for the impact that their strained relationship, which both acknowledged,” may have had on their response to the incident, the report states.

The report also criticizes John Baffa, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary for security and law enforcement, and Thomas Bowman, the VA’s chief of staff, for their slow response.

The IG’s probe determined that 12 days after receiving an incident report on the theft, the VA Security Operations Center, which is responsible for assessing and resolving information security incidents, had made no meaningful progress in assessing the magnitude of the event.

Nicholson responded to the report by assuring lawmakers that the VA has begun efforts to improve its information and cybersecurity programs.

“VA remains unwavering in its resolve to become the leader in protecting personal information, training and educating our employees in best practices, and establishing a culture that always puts the safekeeping of veterans’ personal information first,” he said.

Jim Mueller, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the theft and the VA’s handling of it the worst crisis in the department’s history.

He was also critical of Nicholson’s proposed year of free credit-monitoring services for veterans whose personal data might have been compromised. Mueller said that until government and industry determine that the unencrypted data wasn’t compromised, “no veteran or military member should have to spend one dime to monitor their credit file because of a mess they didn’t create.”

VA employee conducted his own research

The Department of Veterans Affairs employee whose laptop and external hard drive were stolen was conducting a self-initiated, unofficial project without his supervisors’ knowledge, according to a report from the VA’s inspector general.

The employee, whose name has not been released, had authorization to access veterans’ personal data at work, but he should not have taken home the personal data of more than 26 million veterans, service members and their families. Supervisors told the IG they would not have authorized the employee to take home such large amounts of VA data.

He has been placed on administrative leave and could lose his job.

The report faults the employee for using poor judgment and failing to encrypt the data or use a password to protect it. “The serious error in judgment is one for which the employee is personally accountable,” the report states.

— David Hubler

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.


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