Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Government does veterans a great disservice

Tuesday, May 30, 2006 11:22 AM EDT

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

There's a reason a segment of the American population doesn't want the government rooting through phone records and otherwise vacuuming up sensitive personal information about their lives in the name of fighting terrorism.

Along comes the Department of Veterans Affairs to make us wonder what other departments operate so cavalierly, then stick us with the bill for good measure.

Veterans Affairs officials waited two weeks to notify the FBI of the theft of personal data, including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and disability ratings of veterans discharged since 1975.

In one of the nation's largest security breaches, this lack of notification delayed warning 26.5 million veterans.

A government laptop computer and an external hard drive with the veterans' information were stolen from a Montgomery, Md., home on May 3.

The analyst placed on leave was not only not authorized to take the data home, it turns out this has been occurring since 2003!

Veterans Affairs now promises to restrict sensitive data to those who need it and to conduct background checks on those who do.

In other words, better close the barn door now that the horses have galloped away.

Perhaps a common clueless criminal won't have any idea how to realize the value of the purloined data and drain veterans back accounts, but once such information is compromised, fraud could occur next month or beyond.

To add insult to injury, it will cost at least $10 million merely to inform veterans that their personal information may be in the hands of criminals.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson warned Congress on Thursday that the ultimate price tag of the government's response might be tens of millions more.

He tossed out the figure of $100 million taxpayers will be expected to absorb.

Nicholson assured lawmakers he's “mad as hell” at the employee, so the scolding he got for systemic problems perhaps surprised him.

The agency's inspector general, George Opfer, has been reporting identified weaknesses in the VA information technology system and lax security for years, but like so many sectors of the federal bureaucracy sinking under the weight of its own information, warnings once again fell on deaf ears.

“You seem to be saying it's just one employee,” noted Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to Nicholson. “But it's not just one employee. You have a high-risk, vulnerable system.”

“In the last five years, a host of agencies have reported that the VA has had many problems with information security. How did the VA react? With indifference,” Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., said at a House hearing.

It might be news to him, since nobody bothered mentioning the theft to Nicholson until May 16.

The agency's inspector general relied on office gossip to get in the loop.

Nicholson alerted the FBI May 17. A public announcement finally came on May 22.

“I can't explain the lapses of judgment on the behalf of my people,” Nicholson said, sounding about as convincing as an Enron executive.

May 25 Veterans Affairs and the FBI announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen data.

(This is generating fewer and fewer reports by the hour. Last Thursday, there were headlines, Friday many took the day off anticipating a holiday weekend. After the BBQs and sunburns and time/space disorientation of a 3 day weekend, there is no new news. Hashed over stories in small town papers are all that's left. The rrant employee is sitting around his apratment, waiting for the grievance board to meet to decide his fate. This will be a process of weeks or months and in the end, he'll have a minor blot in his Permanant Record and back to work as usual. Nothing at VA will change, Nicholson will be gone in a year or two, onto the lucrative consultancy that awaits federal chieftains, Veterans will wonder where their benefits are and the beat goes on.)

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