This story has been updated.
Since 2010, foreign actors have repeatedly compromised an unencrypted database maintained by the Veterans Affairs Department that contains personally identifiable information on roughly 20 million veterans, a House lawmaker said Tuesday.
Speaking at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Michael Coffman, R-Colo., said China and possibly Russia are responsible for the hacking.
Coffman, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said VA networks and computers have presented “an unacceptable risk for at least three years as sophisticated actors use weaknesses in VA’s security posture to exploit the system and remove veterans’ information and system passwords.”
“While VA knew foreign intruders had been in the network, the Department was never sure what exactly these foreign actors took, because the outgoing data was encrypted by the trespassers,” Coffman said.
Michael Bowman, director of information technology and security audits for the VA Inspector General, told lawmakers that a foreign country, which he did not identify, also compromised a domain controller that runs the e-mail system used by VA senior leadership.
As a result, the unnamed country was able to export the e-mails it snagged from VA senior leaders, Bowman said. In essence, the compromise of the domain controller put the entire VA enterprise at risk, he said.
Stephen Warren, acting VA chief information officer, initially told lawmakers that as far as he knew, only one nation, which he declined to identify for security reasons, had penetrated VA networks over the past year.
Rep. Robert Roe, R-Tenn., citing an internal VA report, said department networks had been penetrated by eight countries. Roe said the report showed that “well funded cyber espionage teams” have targeted VA.
Warren noted that there is a difference between targeting a network and extracting data.
As the increasingly contentious hearing entered its second hour, Warren conceded that multiple nations have targeted VA along with criminal syndicates and department insiders who accessed veteran databases to obtain personal information.
Breaching VA databases would give hackers access to personal information that could support credit fraud, Bowman said. But VA cannot track network penetrations because it lacks automatic login software to trace such illicit access.
Warren said he couldn’t quantify the number of veterans whose personal information had been compromised, prompting an angry explosion from Coffman, incredulous that VA had no idea what data was compromised.
Roe kept pressing Warren to identify the countries that have targeted VA, but Warren declined to provide classified information in an open hearing. “Why is it classified?” Roe demanded. “People in this country need to know who is trying to steal veteran information.”