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White House faulted in VA data theft

Funds sought for personnel

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers from both parties called on the Bush administration yesterday for money and accountability in a widening data-security breach now encompassing nearly all active-duty military, Guard, and Reserve members.

In the Senate, Democrats renewed their criticism of Veteran Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and demanded his ouster following the agency's disclosure Tuesday that personal information for 2.2 million military personnel -- not just 50,000, as initially believed -- was stolen from a VA employee May 3.

``It's amazing. Such incompetence is worse than anything I've ever seen in six administrations," Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said during 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."

In the House, about 150 Democrats called on President Bush to request emergency funds to provide free credit monitoring for the millions of veterans and military personnel who are 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 Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia, whose House Government Reform Committee will hold hearings today in which Nicholson will testify. ``We need to hear a good explanation for why that is."

A White House spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment on the funding request. The VA has said it is in discussions with credit-monitoring services to determine ``how veterans and others potentially affected can best be served" in the aftermath of the theft.

On Tuesday, Nicholson said the agency was mistaken when it said over the weekend that up to 50,000 Navy and National Guard personnel were among the millions of veterans discharged since 1975 whose names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers were stolen from a VA 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.

In their letter to Bush, House Democrats said the nation's military personnel, many of whom are fighting wars abroad, 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," stated the letter, which was organized by Representative John T. Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, and signed by Democrats, including the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California.

Veterans groups have criticized the VA for a three-week delay in publicizing the May 3 burglary, with five groups filing 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.

Yesterday, the national veterans group United Spinal Association of New York said it was backing the five groups that filed suit -- Citizen Soldier, National Gulf War Resource Center, Radiated Veterans of America, Veterans for Peace, and Vietnam Veterans of America -- in seeking compensation and a full disclosure from the VA as to who is at risk.

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