VA chief is assailed over theft of data

Some in Congress call for Nicholson's firing

May 26, 2006|By JOHANNA NEUMAN | JOHANNA NEUMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Anger over the theft of the Social Security numbers of 26.5 million veterans and their spouses flared in Congress yesterday, as Republicans and Democrats pounced on Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson for what they said was a lapse in leadership.

In testimony before House and Senate committees, Nicholson said he is "mad as hell" that it took his agency two weeks to inform him that an employee took home the data, only to have his home burglarized.

"As a veteran, I am outraged," Nicholson said. "I'm outraged that this employee would do this so recklessly, and I'm outraged that I wasn't notified sooner."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has called for President Bush to take Nicholson "into the woodshed" and consider firing him. But White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday that Bush had "full faith and confidence" in the Veterans Affairs secretary.

Nicholson was pilloried for overseeing an agency that for two weeks did not disclose the largest theft of personal security in U.S. history.

"Simply appalling," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, noting that the inspector general has criticized the VA for five years for its lax computer security. "The lingering result will be increased doubts among the American people about the federal government's commitment to protecting their personal information."

Nicholson said that VA policies clearly prohibit employees from taking home sensitive files. He also said FBI and local law enforcement officials asked him to delay public disclosure of the theft to avoid giving the perpetrators any hint of what they had stolen.

Holding up a hard drive, Nicholson said the theft involved 5 gigabytes of material and could easily have been accessed from his home via computer. He said he has ordered immediate training for all computer employees in security and privacy.

The VA's inspector general said the employee told the agency he had taken home sensitive files regularly since 2003. The employee has been put on administration leave, pending an investigation.

Several lawmakers faulted the VA for its computer security and expressed concern that the lapse was the tip of the iceberg.

"We also must view this incident as a wake-up call to the rest of the federal government," Collins said. "The lingering result will be increased doubts among the American people about the federal government's commitment to protecting their personal information."

Others called for Nicholson's dismissal.

"I don't think the secretary is really up to this job," said Rep. Ted Strickland, an Ohio Democrat.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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