OPM head touts cyber revamp, mum on who’s to blame for breach

Katherine Archuleta

OOM Director Katherine Archuleta called her agency's approach to cybersecurity "aggressive."

The Office of Personnel Management is staying pretty tight-lipped, even in front of the lawmakers who hold its purse strings.

Director Katherine Archuleta made bold promises about future cybersecurity to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on June 23. Yet throughout the hearing, Archuleta failed to answer many key questions.

How many people could be affected in OPM’s massive breaches? Who’s to blame?

She wouldn’t say.

A brand-new – potentially flawed – ‘Shell’

“We are on target to finish a completely new modern and secure data center environment by the end of FY 2015, which will eventually replace our legacy network,” Archuleta told lawmakers. “OPM’s 2016 budget request included an additional $21 million above 2015 funding levels to further support the modernization of our IT infrastructure, which is critical to protecting data from the persistent adversaries we face.”

She cited specifics including encryption and “stronger” firewalls – both of which have been labeled inadequate by some cybersecurity experts – as hallmarks of the new “Shell.”

Michael Esser, an assistant inspector general with OPM, noted a few problems with the project.

The agency watchdog hadn’t even been told of the modernization project until 11 months after it kicked off, Esser noted, and he questioned whether a project that “did not have a dedicated funding source” could succeed. He also noted that while OPM estimates the project will cost $93 million, that estimate does not include the cost of migrating existing applications.

“That [migration] work is likely to be, by far, the most expensive part of the project,” Esser said.

But under questioning, Archuleta maintained that her “aggressive” modernization work is “ongoing, on schedule and on budget.”

Some $67 million was dedicated to the modernization in fiscal 2014-15, with $27 million more slated for 2016.

Archuleta said the contract-award process has been “perfectly legal” thus far, despite inspector general misgivings, and noted that contracts for migration and cleanup have yet to be awarded.

“I assure the IG that all of our decisions are being tracked, documented and justified,” she said.

Whose fault is this?

As Archuleta touted her “aggressive” approach to cybersecurity, she avoided some questions.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) spent several minutes trying to coax an estimate of the second breach’s scope from Archuleta.

“You have a certain number of files within your agency subject to this kind of breach,” Moran said. “How many [personnel] files are there at OPM?”

“There are millions of files, sir,” Archuleta responded. “We are a data base.”

She refused to give an estimate of how many total people could have been affected by the breaches, even though FBI Director James Comey reportedly said the breaches’ impact had swelled to 18 million people.

Then Moran asked the kicker: Is anyone at OPM to blame for the breaches?

“This is decades of lack of investments in systems that I inherited,” Archuleta responded.

She noted that even total FISMA compliance – an area with which OPM struggled – might not have guaranteed safety from a breach.

OPM’s vulnerability could not be attributed to any one person, Archuleta claimed, though she did assign guilt for the breaches.

“If there’s anyone to blame, it is the perpetrators,” she said.

But at OPM, “I don’t believe anyone is personally responsible,” Archuleta stated.

In a House hearing last week, Archuleta said no one at OPM has lost their job over the breaches.

Management, not money

“[W]e could manage this a lot more effectively and we don’t need new dollars to do that,” said Richard Spires, the longtime DHS CIO who left government in 2013.

Testifying as a cybersecurity veteran, Spires (a columnist for FCW) claimed that “most federal agencies have the resources” to implement better cybersecurity, including things like two-factor authentication and monitoring user activity to keep the compromised accounts of privileged users from wreaking havoc.

“Is this a management issue or a resource issue?” asked Moran.

“It’s more of a management issue, sir,” Spires said.

Esser and Spires agreed that spending more money won’t fix OPM’s cyber failings, though they did praise the modernization effort as having potential.

“I think we should take an ordered approach to this problem,” Spires said, advocating the identification of sensitive datasets and their protection first, before broader changes are implemented.

The hearing came on the heels of the revelation that three computers at the National Archives and Records Administration had been breached in a manner seemingly similar to the OPM breach. The NARA breach was detected after the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team published tell-tale signs of attack from the OPM breach, Nextgov reported, but hackers do not appear to have gained administrative access to NARA computers.

Still, the breach demonstrates the broad front the government faces from cyber threats.

“OPM is just the most recent example of the government’s systemic failure to protect itself,” noted Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.).

“It would not surprise me to see more [breaches]” across the government in coming months, added Esser.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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