WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday the Bush administration should provide money and take responsibility for the data security breach involving nearly all active-duty military, Guard and Reserve members.
Senate Democrats demanded the ouster of Veteran Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson following the agency's disclosure that personal information for 2.2 million military personnel was stolen from a VA employee on May 3. The figure at first was claimed to be 50,000.
"It's amazing. Such incompetence is worse than anything I've ever seen in six administrations," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a news briefing. "At some point, this 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."
Some 150 Democrats urged President Bush to request money to provide free credit monitoring for the 26.5 million veterans and military personnel now at risk for identity theft.
"These records were stolen more than a month ago, and we're still figuring out what information was lost?" asked Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. His House Government Reform Committee planned a hearing Thursday, with Nicholson scheduled to testify. "We need to hear a good explanation for why that is."
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Bush had yet to receive the letter from the House Democrats. The VA has said it is in discussions with credit-monitoring services to determine how best to aid those at risk from the theft.
Nicholson said Tuesday that the agency was mistaken when it said over the weekend that up to 50,000 Navy and National Guard personnel were among the 26.5 million veterans whose names, birth dates and Social Security numbers were stolen from the data analyst's home.
The number is actually much higher because the VA realized it had records on file for most active-duty personnel who are eligible to receive VA benefits such as GI Bill educational assistance and the home loan guarantee program.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked the Pentagon to brief his Armed Services Committee on Thursday about the breach.
House Democrats told Bush that military personnel should get one free credit report each year as well as credit monitoring.
"The federal government has a duty to ensure that the financial health of our nation's veterans and military families is not harmed as a result of this most unfortunate event," they wrote.
Veterans groups have criticized the VA for a three-week delay in publicizing the May 3 burglary. Five groups filed a class-action lawsuit this week in Washington seeking $1,000 in damages for violations of privacy for each military personnel affected — up to $26.5 billion total.
The VA disclosed the burglary May 22, saying it involved the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers — and in some cases, disability codes — of veterans discharged since 1975. Since then, the department has acknowledged that phone numbers and addresses of many of those veterans may have been included.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said her offices phones have been ringing off the hook with calls from veterans losing faith in the VA. She cited the years of warnings by the agency's inspector general that security access controls were weak.