Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Hill: VA using soldiers as guinea pigs

A secretly recorded meeting of researchers working for the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates that the department did not take seriously congressional requests intended to safeguard the personal and medical information of veterans.
The recording, obtained by The Hill from a researcher who attended the meeting, sheds light on a behind-the-scenes struggle between lawmakers and Veterans Affairs officials over the handling of veterans’ personal information.
“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,’” one Veterans Affairs official, Dr. Joseph Francis, says on the tape. “We’re not asking people to do an A-plus job on this report.”
Questions on the security of the information rose to prominence last May when a Veterans Affairs employee lost to theft a laptop computer containing the personal information of 26.5 million veterans and military personnel. Although authorities eventually recovered the laptop, the incident sounded alarms on Capitol Hill.
Since then, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has held eight hearings on the department’s information technology. The panel also has asked the department repeatedly to report on the security of its information systems, a task that entails providing information about who had access to sensitive information and how it was stored.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee also asked for reports on what sensitive information is accessible to government contractors.
“We’ve had multiple requests on where they are and what they’re doing,” a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee source said, adding that department officials failed to provide adequate answers when Congress demanded them. “We’ve asked that for multiple times, who had access to what, and they still could not tell us at the time.”
The source said the department has responded to bipartisan congressional requests very slowly. The source predicted that there would be additional hearings in coming weeks.
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