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Key GOP senator on OPM’s Archuleta: ‘I wouldn’t rely on her to clean up this mess’

Katherine Archuleta, director, Office of Personnel Management, Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

After her fourth appearance on Capitol Hill in nine days to defend her actions before and following the massive hack of federal personnel records and security clearance data, it’s clear that Katherine Archuleta has struggled to maintain the confidence of many lawmakers.

Seventeen months into the job as director of the Office of Personnel Management, Archuleta has tried over and over to ensure members of Congress that she is handling the crisis and was not directly responsible for letting intruders gain access to sensitive systems containing information on more than 4 million active and former employees. On top that, background check forms for millions more people, many containing classified information, also are at risk.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis..) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, summed up the sentiments shared by Republicans and Democrats at a hearing Thursday morning.

[Federal personnel chief: “I don’t believe anyone is responsible" for OPM  hack ]

Asked after the hearing if Archuleta should keep her job, Johnson noted that that’s the president’s call, but said, “I wouldn’t rely on her to clean up this mess. I don’t think she is qualified to do so.”

“There’s nothing I’ve seen in her performance in reaction to these very serious data breaches that gives me any further confidence, ” he said.

And Carper recalled his days in the Navy when he told Archuleta at the hearing,”You’re the captain of this ship. You’re held responsible, whether that’s fair or not.”

The comments capped a lengthy hearing during which Archuleta pledged that she is working with her staff around the clock not just to notify millions of current and former employees that their personal information may be compromised, but to strengthen computer security at an agency she said lacked many basic protections when she arrived in November 2013.

“OPM needs to dramatically accelerate those efforts,” she told senators. “We continue to move urgently to take action to mitigate the longstanding vulnerability of the agency’s systems.”

Many political appointees in charge of big projects or agencies that have failed have left their jobs when things go wrong, some quickly, some after the crisis is out of the public eye. OPM is not exactly a public face of the Obama administration; in fact, few outside government have probably heard of the personnel agency. But the hack has exposed the increasing vulnerability of federal systems to foreign adversaries.

The tricky question for President Obama, whom the White House has said supports Archuleta, is whether even airtight computer security systems could really have prevented the hackers from intruding.

Archuleta has said she shares lawmakers’ anger on behalf of federal workers, and she has publicly criticized the contractor that OPM hired to offer victims credit protection for poor customer service.

But she has struggled in two House hearings and two in the Senate to give lawmakers the answers they want about the intrusion, often saying she would get back to them later on specifics. OPM’s inspector general, while not personally attacking her and telling lawmakers that he shares a “good relationship” with the personnel chief, has been withering in his criticism of the agency’s state of computer security.

“There’s a long history of systems failures in IT security,” IG Patrick McFarland testified Thursday, saying they may have led to the breach.

Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) took the most aggressive stand with Archuleta, berating her for not meeting face-to-face with FBI Director James Comey to get an accurate estimate of how many people were affected by the breach. (According to some media reports, Comey briefed senators who oversee the intelligence community and told them the number was closer to 18 million; Archuleta says that has not been nailed down).

[OPM still isn’t saying how many people were caught up in its breaches]

Tony Scott, the White House’s chief information officer, came to her defense. Asked if he had confidence in Archuleta and her team, he said, “They are working really really hard and doing the right thing.”

“I think we need to be careful in distinguishing between fire starters and firefighters.”