Veterans Affairs ignores cybersecurity warnings

Government auditors say that the VA cannot be forced to comply with security recommendations

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday questioned why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to suffer from cybersecurity problems despite multiple warnings from government auditors.

Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee asked government auditors why the VA has not acted on repeated cybersecurity recommendations. The hearing follows the VA's announcement last month that personal data of 26.5 million U.S. military veterans and spouses was stolen from the home of a VA data analyst, who had the information stored on a personal laptop computer and an external hard drive. He was not authorized to take that information home. The VA has said that the computer equipment and not the data was the target of whoever stole it.

Some veterans received notices of the data theft by mail this week, close to six weeks after the May 3 break-in. Representative Bob Filner, a California Democrat, called the VA's response to the data theft "pathetic."

"If it were possible to approach the theft of veterans' and service members' records without emotions ... this situation might be even an interesting case study of lax policies, failed leadership and organizational arrogance," Filner said.

VA Secretary R. James Nicholson announced last month he had demoted two agency supervisors who failed to immediately tell him of the data theft. The analyst who took home the data against agency policy will also be fired, Nicholson has said. As recently as last week, the VA has said there's no indication the stolen information has been used in identity theft schemes.

The committee will hear from Nicholson later this month.

Auditors with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the VA's own Inspector General's office said at Wednesday's hearing that they have no authority to force the VA to comply with their recommendations. In addition, the VA doesn't give its chief information officer authority to implement the recommendations without approval from three under secretaries in the agency, said Michael Stale, the VA's assistant inspector general for audits.

"They have a long way to go to mitigate their vulnerabilities and have a comprehensive IT security program," he said.

The GAO has issued multiple reports about VA cybersecurity problems since 2000, and the VA has received a failing grade in four of the past five years on an annual cybersecurity review by the House Government Reform Committee.

The agency seems to focus on individual medical centers or regional centers in fixing identified problems, instead of fixing those problems agencywide, Staley said. "The responses we get back to those recommendations is, 'We've taken action at site A,'" he said. "Then the next year we ... go to site B, and we see the same conditions exist."

Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, asked Staley and GAO auditors who was responsible if VA officials ignored cybersecurity warnings. Auditors are working with the White House Office of Management and Budget to work on cybersecurity problems across the U.S. government, said Linda Koontz, GAO's director of information management issues.

"We need to figure out, what are the lines of authority?" Buyer said.

The VA's decentralized management, with its three divisions largely responsible for their own IT security, has contributed to cybersecurity problems, Buyer said. "VA's internal controls in data security have been grossly inadequate for years," he added.

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