WASHINGTON – The theft of a disk containing the names, birthdates and Social Security numbers of as many as 26.5 million veterans and their spouses stirred fury in Congress on Thursday, as both Republicans and Democrats pounced on Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, demanding to know why the agency’s notorious computer security issues had not been fixed.
With millions in danger of identity theft because a VA data analyst took home a computer disk that was later stolen during a burglary, more than 100,000 aggrieved veterans sought answers from 14 call centers set up by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They also took their complaints to the airwaves and the Internet, where one Vietnam vet set up an online petition urging Nicholson to quit.
Amid calls for Nicholson’s resignation, White House press secretary Tony Snow said President Bush had “full faith and confidence” in the Veterans Affairs secretary.
Nicholson, a 67-year-old former Army Ranger who fought in Vietnam, said in testimony before House and Senate committees that he was “mad as hell” that the employee had taken the disk home, and that his deputy secretary, Gordon Mansfield, had not informed him of the security breach for two weeks.
“As a veteran, I am outraged,” said Nicholson. “I’m outraged that this employee would do this so recklessly, and I’m outraged that I wasn’t notified sooner.”
But neither Congress nor veterans groups were appeased. The Veterans of Foreign Wars was furious that the VA’s response has been to urge individuals to check their own credit reports.
“Telling 26.5 million veterans to deal with this as individuals is a totally unacceptable response,” the VFW’s national commander, James R. Mueller, said in an e-mailed statement. “We strongly suggest that the federal government start figuring out a way to deal with this problem computer-to-computer between the VA, national credit bureaus and other national institutions.”
Nicholson told the House committee that the stolen records were those of veterans who have been discharged since 1975 or who are receiving compensation for disabilities. The missing data include the names and birth dates of about 26.5 million veterans and some of their spouses, along with 19.6 million Social Security numbers.
Officials at both the White House and the Veterans Administration stressed that, so far, the records have not been compromised and the FBI is trying to recover them. In the meantime, veterans are being advised to notify banks and credit card companies, and lawmakers were talking about earmarking funds to pay for veterans to receive regular checks of their credit reports.