updated 6/21/2006 11:50:35 PM ET 2006-06-22T03:50:35

A hacker broke into the Agriculture Department’s computer system and may have obtained names, Social Security numbers and photos of 26,000 Washington-area employees and contractors, the department said Wednesday.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the department will provide free credit monitoring for one year to anyone who might have been affected.

The break-in happened during the first weekend in June, the department said. Technology staff learned of the breach on June 5 and told Johanns the following day but believed personal information was protected by security software, the department said.

However, on further analysis, staff concluded that data on current or former employees might have been accessed and informed Johanns on Wednesday, according to the department.

The department said it notified law enforcement agencies. Its inspector general is investigating the break-in.

The information was used for staff or contractor badges in Washington and the surrounding area, spokeswoman Terri Teuber said. Those who might have been affected were notified by e-mail and were being sent letters.

People who believe they may be affected by the data breach can go to www.firstgov.gov for more information. The Agriculture Department has a toll-free number to call for information about the incident or about consumer-identity protections. The number, 1-800-FED-INFO (1-800-333-4636), is a call center that operates from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT Monday through Saturday.

Other federal departments have acknowledged recently that private information had been compromised.

As many as 26.5 million people may have been affected by the theft of a laptop computer containing Veterans Affairs information including Social Security numbers and birth dates. The computer was taken from the home of a VA employee, and officials waited nearly three weeks before notifying veterans on May 22 of the theft.

Earlier this month, the Health and Human Services Department discovered that personal information for nearly 17,000 Medicare beneficiaries may have been compromised when an insurance company employee called up the data through a hotel computer and then failed to delete the file.

Social Security numbers and other information for nearly 1,500 people working for the National Nuclear Security Administration may have been compromised when a hacker gained entry to an Energy Department computer system last fall. Officials said June 12 they had learned only recently of the breach.

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