Lawmakers among 27M hit by theft

When Rep. John Salazar received word this week of the massive data breach at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Colorado Democrat was concerned about the risk of identity theft for his constituents — but also himself.

Salazar left the Army in 1976, making him one of about 26.5 million veterans most likely to be affected by the theft of a computer disk containing names, Social Security numbers and birth dates from a VA employee’s home earlier this month.

“He’s checking his credit and wants to make sure other veterans have the opportunity to protect their identities as well,” said Salazar spokeswoman Nayyera Haq.

The VA has said that the stolen disk mostly contains data from veterans discharged after 1975, which could expose up to 29 sitting members of Congress to identity theft. Yet there are approximately 25 million living veterans, less than the number of individuals with identities potentially compromised by the breach, and the full extent of the breach remains unclear.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson expressed outrage yesterday at his department’s decision to wait two weeks before disclosing the burglary, which occurred May 3. While the VA employee who took the data home without authorization has been placed on administrative leave until an inspector general’s inquiry is complete, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee will have a chance to sound their own alarms at a hearing today.

Laura Zuckerman, a spokeswoman for committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who served in the Army between 1984 and 1987, said verifying the integrity of his own data was not Buyer’s first concern.

“At this point the congressman isn’t concerned about himself. He’s concerned about the almost 27 million veterans,” Zuckerman said.

Similarly, a spokesman for Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) was not aware of any precautions taken by the six-year Army veteran, who left the service in 1986.

“My guess is he hasn’t thought about it even applying to him, since he technically isn’t in the VA system,” Shimkus spokesman Steve Tomaszewski said.

The office of Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) also said that he had most likely not yet verified the integrity of his personal information. Spokeswoman Courtney Littig said more pressing issues occupy Taylor.

“I don’t think he’s worried about it right now, but I don’t think anyone would want his credit right now,” considering the outstanding school loans for Taylor’s children and on his home, which was destroyed last fall in Hurricane Katrina, Littig said. “He’s a little bit more worried about building a home.” Taylor served in the Coast Guard Reserve until 1984.

Rep, Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who left the Air Force in 1976, plans to check on his credit as soon as he returns home for next week’s recess, said spokesman David Host, “and he urges all veterans to do the same.”

Marine veteran Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), discharged in 1994, has written to veterans in his district informing them of the breach and offering information on credit-reporting agencies and other relevant contacts, according to spokesman Troy Young.

“He’s just watching his account activity and staying vigilant, like any of those who have been affected by this,” Young said, adding that Kline found “no oddities” in any of his bank accounts.

White House spokesman Tony Snow yesterday declined to voice President Bush’s confidence in Nicholson, referring questions to the VA, Reuters reported yesterday. Nicholson issued a statement confirming the investigation and vowing to step up protection of veterans’ data.

“I am outraged at the loss of this veterans data and the fact an employee would put it at risk by taking it home in violation of our policies,” Nicholson said. “I am also concerned about the timing of the department’s response once the burglary became known. I will not tolerate inaction and poor judgment when it comes to protecting our veterans.”

Nicholson bore the brunt of blame last fall when a $1-billion-plus budget shortfall at the VA required lawmakers to approve an emergency funding infusion. He will face a new ranking Democrat at today’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday that Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.) would replace Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who left his senior position on the panel in anticipation of his retirement this year to battle Parkinson’s disease.

Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), meanwhile, introduced legislation yesterday requiring the VA to furnish free credit reports and credit monitoring to any veteran hurt by the theft. Simmons, who served in the Army between 1965 and 1968, earlier wrote to the heads of the three major U.S. credit agencies urging them to provide free credit services for any veteran whose data was affected.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) also requested an immediate Government Accountability Office (GAO) review yesterday of governmentwide information-security procedures, aiming to uncover whether a similar breach could occur at other agencies.

Other members of Congress discharged after 1975 include Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) as well as Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.).

The VA did not return a request for comment by press time.