Friday, May 26, 2006

Veterans Affairs Secretary Testifies Before Congress

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson and the department's Inspector General testified about the security breach to a Congressional Committee yesterday.

Chief among his revelations, although perhaps the least surprising, was that the employee in question had been taking this kind of information home for at least three years.

This is just what I expected. It also suggests that, in spite of what the VA has said about their rules, he had de facto approval to work from home.

"He said that he routinely took such data home to work on it, and had been doing so since 2003," said the Inspector General, George Opfer.

The Inspector General said the employee's supervisors have all said that they did not know that the employee took all the information home with him.

But did they ask? Did they know what he was working on? Did they know he was working at home? How else did they think he was getting his work done? And if they had known, would they have done anything about it?

This is not an advocacy site. But the questions are important from a factual and legal perspective.

Mr. Nicholson said the employee who took the data home had broken no law "as near as I can tell," but said the employee had violated VA policies.

The Secretary did not find out about the loss of the data for almost 2 weeks. Senators said the delay was "baffling," "mind-boggling" and "just unbelieveable."

Senators said security was too lax at the VA. "How is it that VA's computer system permits one person to download the records of 26 million individuals and no one is alerted?" said Sen. Larry Craig, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Nicholson defended himself from criticism and calls for his resignation, and said there is an "embedded cultural resistance" to change at the VA.

He even suggested Congress might want to consider enacting laws making it unlawful to take records with sensitive information home.

The VA is planning on notifying every affected person by mail. But the Inspector General pointed out "we don't have 26 million envelopes."

He said the the costs of buying, addressing and mailing the envelopes would probably be $10 million to $11 million.

He said costs to the Department could be as high as $500 million.


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