WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson yesterday defended the government's decision to withdraw free credit monitoring for millions of veterans, saying there was little risk that their sensitive data would be compromised.
Testifying to a Senate panel, Nicholson acknowledged there were no 100 percent guarantees that names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers stored on a VA employee's stolen laptop and external drive were not accessed or copied. But he said the low risk did not justify a year of personalized monitoring at a taxpayer cost of $160.5 million.
``Facts have changed, the situation has changed," Nicholson said, noting that the stolen equipment has been recovered and that the FBI determined with a ``high degree of confidence" that the data were not compromised.
Speaking of veterans groups, some of whom are fiercely opposed to the decision, Nicholson added: ``Some oppose, but some concur, thinking it would be a waste of $160.5 million."
Congress is investigating the steps leading up to and after the May 3 theft at a VA employee's suburban Maryland home. It also is pondering legislation to improve information security.
Yesterday the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed a bill that would create a VA undersecretary of information services whose duties would be focused on data protection.
The bill would also provide for free credit monitoring after a breach, upon the request of affected individuals.
Talk of security changes at the VA followed the May 3 theft of 26.5 million people's data. It was the worst-ever breach of government data.
During yesterday's hearing, lawmakers on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee expressed concern that the VA might be breaking its promise after informing veterans last month that it would provide free monitoring. The stolen equipment was recovered, but some veterans say they should still get some protection, they said.
``I know the FBI says it has a high level of certainty that the data was not accessed, but frankly I wouldn't bet my credit on it," said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat .