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Laptop containing veterans’ personal records recovered

WASHINGTON – Social Security numbers and other personal data on 26.5 million veterans and military troops were not copied from a Veterans Affairs computer missing for eight weeks, the FBI said Thursday.

The recovery of the laptop and external drive was a “positive note in this very sad saga,” VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said.

“This has brought to the light of day some real deficiencies in the manner we handled personal data,” said Nicholson, who made the announcement at a House hearing investigating one of the nation’s worst information data breaches.

“If there’s a redeeming part of this, I think we can turn this around,” he said.

Burglars stole the computer equipment from a data analyst’s Maryland home on May 3. Law enforcement officials recovered the laptop after an informant on Wednesday notified the U.S. Park Police that he had heard about a $50,000 reward and knew where it could be found.

The equipment was then turned in to officials in Montgomery County, Md., where the data analyst lives. No suspects were in custody.

The FBI, in a statement from its Baltimore field office, said a preliminary review of the equipment by its computer forensic teams “has determined that the data base remains intact and has not been accessed since it was stolen.” More tests were planned.

Veterans groups cheered the news but said the government should provide them free credit monitoring to ensure they are fully protected.

“The worst-case scenario may have been averted this time, but an even greater tragedy would be if this type of incident was allowed to happen again because of complacency,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, agreed. “We are pleased and relieved,” he said. “This does not, however, obviate the crisis of confidence in the security of veterans’ personal data and contact information as managed by the VA.”

On Wednesday, President Bush asked Congress for $160.5 million to pay for credit monitoring and other fraud protection for affected veterans. He proposed using dollars set aside but not used yet for food stamps, student loans and trade assistance for farmers.

During the hearing Thursday, Nicholson urged veterans to keep watch over their financial records until more tests are completed in the coming days. But he declined to say whether the VA would ultimately follow through on its plans to offer at least one year of free credit monitoring.

The department is actively working to hire a data analysis company to watch for identity theft, but it will await further tests from the FBI. On average, the monitoring, costs $50 to $150 per person each year.


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