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VA secretary pledges accountability

/ Source: The Associated Press

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said Thursday he is striving to find out why it took his agency two weeks to reveal the theft of personal data from 26.5 million veterans, telling Congress he is "mad as hell" that he wasn’t told right away.

"The employee promptly reported the theft to the local police and to the Department of Veterans Affairs.  But it was not until May 16th that I was notified," Nicholson said. "As a veteran, I am outraged."

"It is important to note that the data did not include any of VA’s electronic health records," he told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. But he added: "I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to make clear what is appropriate and inappropriate use of data by our employees."

Congress is trying to determine whether the VA had adequate security measures in place to guard against the unauthorized disclosure of veterans’ Social Security numbers and birthdates. It is one of the nation’s largest security breaches.

Also at issue is why the department waited so long before acknowledging that a government-owned laptop and disks were stolen in what appeared to be a routine burglary at an agency analyst’s home in Maryland.

At the House hearing, Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of the veterans panel, said he wanted straight answers as to how Nicholson could have allowed a delay in telling the public about the theft of information after the May 3 burglary at a VA data analyst’s home.

"This isn’t just an issue of a low-level employee," Buyer told a chagrined Nicholson. "This is a serious case of mismanagement."

Nicholson got an endorsement from President Bush even as lawmakers pressed for greater accountability and awaited answers in the hearings and a subsequent joint meeting of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush had "full faith and confidence" in Nicholson. Snow originally had declined to issue a statement of support in the president’s name, but then said he wanted to clarify his remarks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Bush should call Nicholson "into the woodshed" and consider changing the department’s leadership, particularly after the agency waited until May 22 to inform the public about the May 3 theft.

"Instead of promptly notifying millions of veterans that their personal data was irresponsibly handled and then stolen, VA officials held their breath and crossed their fingers for nearly three weeks," Leahy said.

In a statement, Nicholson said he was outraged by his agency’s decision to keep the theft quiet for so long. He said he had asked the agency’s inspector general to determine who knew what and when.

"I will not tolerate inaction and poor judgment when it comes to protecting our veterans," Nicholson said in a statement.

Nicholson is a Vietnam War veteran and former chairman of the Republican National Committee.