VA official defends memos restricting IT centralization

The Veterans Affairs Department's chief legal officer on Thursday defended memorandums opposing attempts to centralize authority over technology, telling legislators that he based them on the laws governing federal information security.

A lack of central authority to enforce information security policies at the VA has become a focus of lawmakers who are examining last month's massive data breach.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said at a hearing Thursday that memos signed by VA General Counsel Tim McClain contributed to the weak security controls culminating in the data breach. Agency officials responsible for enforcing security policies did not have the necessary authority, he said.

"It is incongruent to say one has responsibility, but no authority," Buyer told McClain, referring to the general counsel's decision on a directive from then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi. "We ended up with a legal opinion that is a heterodox opinion."

A March 2004 memo from Principi stated that then-CIO Robert McFarland was responsible for implementing a departmentwide information security program.

But a subsequent memo from McClain weakened that directive. In his testimony McClain said the Principi memo merely asserted the secretary's "intention" to grant McFarland the "power and authority needed" to enforce information security policies.

McClain said he would not retract either of two memos, one dated Aug. 1, 2003, and the other April 7, 2004, finding that the chief information security officer lacked the authority under the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act to hold organizations and individuals within the department accountable for information security.

"The opinions state the opinion of the law when they were written," McClain said. "I think that if the CIO had additional authority, it would make his particular job easier. But that is a policy discussion, not a legal one."

There are a number of actions the VA CIO could take to enforce security policies, McClain said, including blocking individuals from accessing systems, but the law does not by default give the technology chief authority to enforce policies.

"I am responsible for interpreting those laws and how they apply to our business in the VA," McClain said. "What we're saying is that the current state of the law does not give the CIO these powers. Had the secretary desired to make a change, he could have delegated the authority to the CIO."

Buyer said he will work to change FISMA, which has been heavily criticized by Bruce Brody, the department's associate deputy assistant secretary for cyber and information security at the time McClain's memos were issued, and other information security experts. Changes under consideration include eliminating ambiguities regarding the responsibilities and authority of agency CIOs.

McClain said that the department's "federated" IT management model, adopted last year, will give the chief information officer the necessary authority and enforcement powers to improve information security, including direct authority over the department's 4,000 IT employees.

But Brody said that the "federated" model has legitimized the department's "culture of resistance," and Buyer called it an excuse for a lack of security controls.

A high-profile Purdue University computer science professor who is an expert on information security backed Brody.

"There is no centralized point of authority to ensure that rules, procedures and good practices are instituted and observed," Eugene Spafford said. "There is no centralized position that has all three components necessary to effectively manage information security: resources, accountability and authority."

He said the authority to make changes to information security policies and to fire staff for bad behavior should be consolidated in one officer.

Buyer also said he was not satisfied with the department's announcement Wednesday that it will provide free credit monitoring for those affected by the data breach. Buyer and witnesses noted that potential identity thieves could create criminal records in addition to bad credit records for the affected individuals.

Buyer also criticized the House Judiciary Committee for passing a bill, H.R. 5520, on Thursday. The bill would create a special office to deal with veterans' claims resulting from identity theft. He implicitly criticized the committee for moving the legislation without consulting his panel.

"It's inconsiderate," he said.

Sarah Lai Stirland of National Journal's Technology Daily contributed to this report.

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