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Democrats Criticize Handling Of Computer Data Theft Case

By David Stout
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Democrats on Wednesday accused the Bush administration of incompetence amid revelations that the recent loss of computer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs involved far more active-duty military people than was originally thought.

“Such incompetence is as bad or worse than anything I’ve seen in six administrations,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said. “At some point, the administration has got to stop saying we’ll hire or appoint political cronies, but we’ll actually appoint somebody who knows how to make the government work.”

Leahy appeared at a news conference with Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Jack Reed of Rhode Island in the aftermath of the latest revelation in the data-breach episode, in which information on as many as 1.1 million military people on active duty, 430,000 members of the National Guard and 645,000 members of the Reserves may have been compromised.

The Department of Veterans Affairs originally said the lost data involved 26.5 million veterans discharged from about 1975 onward. Later it said that a relatively small number of active-duty people might be included in the 26.5 million. And finally, the agency disclosed on Tuesday that the actual number of active-duty people, Guardsmen and reservists involved may be well over 2 million.

Murray, a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the troubles within the agency threatened to undermine faith in it.

“Can you imagine being a young woman with a couple of children, your spouse is overseas in Iraq, and now you find out that your address has been stolen and your personal safety is at risk?” she said.

A Veterans Department spokesman, Matt Burns, said Wednesday that the agency would continue to release information on the data breach “as additional details are learned.”

A laptop computer and external hard drive containing the data were stolen on May 3 in a burglary at the suburban Maryland home of a department data analyst. Some department officials learned of the theft almost immediately, but Jim Nicholson, the secretary of veterans affairs, was not notified until May 16.

Because of the time lag, the FBI did not learn of the incident until about two weeks after the burglary, which was under investigation by the police in Montgomery County.

The data includes names, birth dates and Social Security numbers. Although there has been no indication that the information has been misused, there have been widespread concerns that it could be used for credit card fraud and identity theft.