<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

For nearly five years, we've heard ad nauseam about the stepped-up security that's made America safer in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Security, security, security. It's like a Bush administration mantra, repeated over and over again by Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Bush himself.

They even created the federal Department of Homeland Security.

So it was a little surprising to get a letter -- as many here did -- from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an outfit I hadn't heard from since leaving the Army back in 1975. The letter made me feel anything but secure.

"Dear Veteran," it began.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs has recently learned that an employee took home electronic data from the VA, which he was not authorized to do and was in violation of established policies. The employee's home was burglarized and this data was stolen. The data contained identifying information including names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth for up to 25.6 million veterans and some spouses, as well as some disability ratings. As a result of this incident, information identifiable with you was potentially exposed to others."

Thinking it was some kind of scam, I called local developer Roger Trevino, who was in the Air Force around the same time I was in the Army. He'd gotten one, too. Ditto for Niagara Falls Democratic Chairman Mickey Rimmen, who was a Marine back in those days. And likewise for Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry Wojtaszek, who served his country admirably in the U.S. Navy.

In fact, it turns out that all active-duty military personnel, along with anyone who served from 1975 on up, got one. They were talking about it the other night at a gathering of Marines at an undisclosed location on Third Street.

But our friends at the VA wanted to reassure us that, just because all the information needed to get credit cards, driver's licenses and other identification issued in our names was out there floating around somewhere, we shouldn't be too concerned.

"Appropriate law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the VA Inspector General's office, have launched full-scale investigations into this matter," the letter said.

Everyone felt much better that the government was on the case. The same government, that is, that allowed some bonehead junior analyst to take home a laptop computer containing the personal information of 25.6 million American veterans and active-duty military personnel.

The same government that tragically botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, got us into an unwinnable war in Iraq and failed to properly evaluate the considerable intelligence it possessed that might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks in the first place.

Oh yeah, everyone felt much better.

And what of the unnamed analyst himself? Didn't he work for the government, too? Why hasn't his name been released or, better yet, why hasn't he been arrested?

According to Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin, a Pentagon spokesman, the computer was stolen on May 3, but the VA didn't get around to reporting it to the Department of Defense until June 1, almost a month later.

In testimony given before Congress on June 8, Veterans Affairs secretary and Bush appointee Jim Nicholson was contrite.

"This has been a painful lesson for us at VA, and I am committed to ensuring that we have the people, adequately trained, policies and procedures in place to assure this could not happen again," he said.

Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse got out. Did Bush tell Nicholson he was doing a "heck of a job," like he told another of his appointees -- disgraced former FEMA director Michael Brown -- after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans?

Nicholson then theorized, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that some young burglar stole the laptop and erased the data in hopes of selling the computer for drug money.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California wasn't buying. After pointing out that the House Government Reform Committee and the Government Accountability Office had warned the VA for years about lax security, Waxman tore Nicholson a new one.

"Secretary Nicholson, you blame this on an employee who was fired, on a culture, on people doing what they're not supposed to be doing," he said. "That doesn't sound like we're getting to the heart of this with passing the buck." Things got even worse on June 14, when representatives of the Government Accountability Office and the VA Inspector General's office testified before Congress.

Their view? The same thing could happen again tomorrow. And the blame lies squarely on VA Secretary Nicholson's shoulders.

Linda Koontz of the GAO charged the VA is highly resistant to change, lacks a clear chain of command and suffers from weak management.

"Only through strong leadership, sustained management commitment and effort, disciplined processes and consistent oversight can VA address its persistent, long-standing control weaknesses," she said.

Michael Staley, an assistant VA inspector general, painted a grim picture.

"These conditions place sensitive information, including financial data and sensitive veteran medical and benefit information, at risk, possibly without detection of inadvertent or deliberate misuse, fraudulent misuse, improper disclosure or destruction," he said.

President Bush has yet to mention the military records fiasco his VA secretary is responsible for, and it has largely been off the radar for the mainstream media. The seriousness of this security breach, however, can hardly be overestimated.

Should the information stored on that computer wind up south of the border, the 15 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States won't seem like many at all, and the newcomers will have all their papers in order. Should the information fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, the attacks America has already endured will pale in comparison.

And even if, as Nicholson speculated, it's merely in the hands of a common criminal -- intent only on making a quick buck and not being too particular how he does it -- he'll have 25.6 million potential victims at his fingertips. Identity theft and credit-card fraud are a lot less risky than breaking and entering, and the rewards can be much greater.

Although he wasn't much of a soldier himself, Bush likes to have his picture taken as often as possible with military men and women. He sneaked in and out of Iraq just last week to collect more such pictures, and his rhetoric often takes the form of paeans to the brave men and women who serve now or have served in the past.

If he really gave a damn about any of them, or about security, he'd have fired this Nicholson fellow weeks ago.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 20 2006