VA Worker Had OK for Data Later Stolen

The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 28, 2006; 11:07 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Veterans Affairs worker faulted for losing veterans' personal information had permission to access millions of Social Security numbers on a laptop from home, agency documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

Separately, President Bush on Wednesday asked Congress for $160.5 million for credit monitoring for millions of veterans affected by the May 3 burglary. He proposed tapping dollars set aside but not used yet for food stamps, student loans and trade assistance for farmers.

The department's documents raise questions as to whether top officials condoned a practice that led to a theft with the potential to affect 26.5 million veterans and active-duty troops.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson and others were to testify Thursday before a House committee investigating the government's largest security breach involving Social Security numbers.

The documents show that the data analyst, whose name was being withheld, had approval as early as Sept. 5, 2002, to use special software at home that was designed to manipulate large amounts of data.

A separate agreement, dated Feb. 5, 2002, from the office of the assistant secretary for policy and planning, allowed the worker to access Social Security numbers for millions of veterans.

A third document, also issued in 2002, gave the analyst permission to take a laptop computer and accessories for work outside of the VA building.

"These data are protected under the Privacy Act," one document states. The analyst is the "lead programmer within the Policy Analysis Service and as such needs access to real Social Security numbers."

The department said last month it was in the process of firing the data analyst, who is now challenging the dismissal.

VA officials have said the firing was justified because the analyst violated department procedure by taking the data home; they also said he was "grossly negligent" in handling sensitive information.

Lawmakers expressed dismay over the latest disclosure. They noted that the analyst immediately notified his supervisors after the theft from his suburban Maryland home, but supervisors delayed publicizing the crime until May 22. Nicholson was informed on May 16.

"The gross negligence in this case are the people above him," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the acting top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "They gave him express permission to take the information home. When it was stolen, he reported it right away."

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