Computer Crash Wipes Out Years of Air Force Investigation Records

The files went up in figurative smoke, like the target of this A-10 on a training run in Nevada. The files went up in figurative smoke, like the target of this A-10 on a training run in Nevada. Senior Airman Brett Clashman / U.S. Air Force file photo

The U.S. Air Force has lost records concerning 100,000 investigations into everything from workplace disputes to fraud.

A database that hosts files from the Air Force’s inspector general and legislative liaison divisions became corrupted last month, destroying data created between 2004 and now, service officials said. Neither the Air Force nor Lockheed Martin, the defense firm that runs the database, could say why it became corrupted or whether they’ll be able to recover the information.

Lockheed tried to recover the information for two weeks before notifying the Air Force, according to a service statement.

Update: Air Force Says It Recovered Trove of Files in Corrupted Database

The Air Force has begun asking for assistance from cybersecurity professionals at the Pentagon as well as from private contractors.

“We’ve kind of exhausted everything we can to recover within [the Air Force] and now we’re going to outside experts to see if they can help,” said Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

For now, Air Force officials don’t believe the crash was caused intentionally.

“[W]e’re doing our due diligence and checking out all avenues within the investigation to find out if there’s anything that we’re not aware of,” Stefanek said. “Right now, we don’t have any indication of that.”

Lockheed declined to answer specific questions about the incident.

“We are aware of the data corruption issue in the Air Force's Automated Case Tracking System (ACTS) and are working with the Air Force to identify the cause, and restore the lost data,” Maureen Schumann, a company spokeswoman, said in an email.

The Air Force inspector general is an independent organization that reports directly to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. The office investigates claims of waste, fraud, and abuse within the service.

Stefanek said the ACTS system contains all sorts of personal information, such as complaints, the findings of an investigation, and any actions taken. The database also contains records of congressional and constituent inquiries.

The data lost dates back to 2004.

“[W]hen the system crashed, all those historical records were lost,” she said.

Data about current investigations has also been lost, which is delaying them.

“The Air Force is assessing the immediate impact of the data loss, but at this time we are experiencing significant delays in the processing of inspector general and congressional constituency inquiries,” the service said in a statement.

It’s possible that some data is backed up at local bases where investigations originated.

“We’ve opened an investigation to try to find out what’s going on, but right now, we just don’t know,” Stefanek said.

In a letter to Secretary James on Monday, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the lost database “was intended to help the Air Force efficiently process and make decisions about serious issues like violations of law and policy, allegations or reprisal against whistleblowers, Freedom of Information Act requests, and Congressional inquiries.”

“My personal interest in the [Inspector General's] ability to make good decisions about the outcomes of cases, and to do so in a timely manner, stems from a case involving a Virginia constituent that took more than two years to be completed, flagrantly violating the 180-day statutory requirement for case disposition,” Warner wrote.

The case Warner was referring to was conducted by the Defense Department's inspector general, but the senator said he is worried the Air Force’s data loss could further delay investigations.

"I am very concerned by any problems that could negatively impact case outcomes or that could exacerbate the already lengthy process for [inspector general] investigations to be concluded," he wrote.

He also criticized the Air Force for notifying Congress on Friday afternoon, five days after senior service leaders was told about the problem.

"The five-sentence notification to Congress did not contain information that appeared to have the benefit of five days of working the issue," Warner wrote.

Air Force officials originally said information on sexual assaults might had been lost in the crash. After the article was published, they said that while sexual assault and harassment claims might have been part of the files lost, those types of investigations are backed up elsewhere. The inspector general does not investigate cases solely involving sexual assault. However, sexual assault or harassment might be tangentially part of an inspector general investigation, a service spokeswoman said.

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