VA IG: More heads should roll

Veterans Affairs still lacks single top-down policy on data security, more officials should be punished, inspector general says.

With the release of the 68-page report from the Veterans Affairs Inspector General, we learn a few more details about the theft of the infamous VA laptop, but mostly it adds to the pressure on Secretary Jim Nicholson to roll some more heads, the Washington Post reports.

IG George J. Opfer recommends Nicholson "take whatever administrative action deemed appropriate" to punish top VA officials who knew about the theft an hour after the employee reported it but didn't tell the Secretary for two weeks. Nicholson didn't inform the public for a week after that.

While Nicholson has assured Congress that new security measures are in place, the IG says those steps are inadequate. Nicholson should establish "one clear, concise VA policy on safeguarding protected information," he wrote.

The report shows that VA officials were lying incorrect when they said thieves couldn't read the stolen data without knowing how to use a sophisticated statistical software program. In a minor detail, the data was stored on an external hard drive, not the laptop itself.

The analyst began taking the data home in 2003 for a self-described "fascination project" to test the accuracy of a survey of veterans by VA in 2001, the report said.

Now, the pressure is building for Nicholson to act more decisively. Robert Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, "We're waiting for the secretary to act. I want him to take every action he has to clean that place up. The secretary seems to be the poor guy sitting out on a limb; he's the last guy to know, and then he responds."

Nicholson's official statement may suggest reluctance to do more, since he refers to his current efforts as a "course of action" and "aggressive." That statement says: "VA has embarked on a course of action to wholly improve its cyber and information security programs. ... The IG's report confirms that we must continue with our aggressive efforts to reform the current system."

Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement: "The Secretary testified before our Committee that he is 'mad as hell' about the data breach. He should be. His actions in light of these IG findings will tell us if those words were deeply felt or simply meant to engender sympathy under intense pressure."

So far Dennis Duffy, acting assistant secretary overseeing the division in which the analyst worked, and Michael McLendon, a political appointee who supervised the analyst, were fired or resigned. As far as the analyst himself, he is challenging his firing.