Lawmaker: VA officials still take lax approach to data security

Recent comments by a mid-level Veterans Affairs Department official are a sign of a management culture that still fails to take data security seriously enough, the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said Monday.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., publicized a recording of the comments, in response to the VA's latest data breach. The recording was of a meeting in early January and captured Joseph Francis, acting deputy chief research and development officer at VA, telling his staff members that they did not need to "do an A-plus job" in responding to a congressional request for information on where the department keeps sensitive data.

"If you want to know what's the real purpose of the data call, read Machiavelli. It's about power, it's about Congress saying, 'VA, you're accountable to us,'" Francis said. "We're not asking people to do an A-plus job on this report."

In response to the disclosure, VA spokesman Matt Burns said Francis "is with the program" and understands what the agency is doing to protect veterans' data.

In a letter to the editor of The Hill, the Capitol Hill newspaper that first obtained the recording, Francis said his comments were taken out of context and "offered a very misleading impression of what I actually said."

"The meeting was intended to emphasize VA's need to provide the highest level of protection for our human research subjects, particularly as it relates to information security issues," Francis wrote.

He said members of the audience were concerned that lawmakers gave the department only four days to meet the request for data, and that he asked for the employees' best efforts even if the results were not complete.

But Buyer was skeptical.

"Congress does expect an A-plus job of Dr. Francis, as it does all the people who are entrusted with the health care and benefits delivery of America's veterans and family members," Buyer said. "The time for second-guessing by VA middle management is over."

The potential for fraud in the latest data breach is "enormous," Buyer said. The incident puts at risk highly sensitive information on the 1.3 million physicians who have billed Medicaid and Medicare, and medical data for about 535,000 VA patients.

The breach did not come up at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday on the fiscal 2008 budget, though VA Secretary James Nicholson emphasized that the department is working toward its goal of becoming the "gold standard" for information security in the government.

After the hearing, Nicholson told reporters it has yet to be determined whether the hard drive containing the data was stolen or lost. He said the VA inspector general continues to lead the investigation, in consultation with the FBI.

Nicholson said he could not predict whether the hard drive would be recovered. He said the employee who lost it "clearly" violated agency policies by leaving the data unprotected and has been placed on administrative leave. The hard drive went missing after the office changed locations, Nicholson said.

"Hard drives are such small things," Nicholson said.

According to Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the employee initially said the hard drive had been stolen but has since changed his story. Nicholson said the employee has obtained an attorney.

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