OPM Director Defends Cybersecurity Protocol in Wake of Massive Hack

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta Cliff Owen/AP

The recent intrusion "may have been the most devastating cyberattack in our nation's history," House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz said.

The director of the Office and Personnel Management struck a defensive tone during her appearance before a congressional panel Tuesday, saying that the agency had greatly expanded its cybersecurity in recent years while partly blaming the recent hack of federal-employee data on a lack of funding for information technology.

Appearing before the House Oversight Committee nearly two weeks after a massive breach affecting the personal data of millions of current and former employees was publicly disclosed, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta acknowledged security vulnerabilities in the agency's outdated technology infrastructure. But she also hailed the strides OPM had taken under her stewardship to bolster its cyberdefenses.

"Cybersecurity issues that the government is facing is a problem that has been decades in the making, due to a lack of investment in federal IT systems and a lack of efforts in both the public and private sectors to secure our Internet infrastructure," Archuleta wrote in her three-page written testimony, which she read portions of during the hearing. "We discovered these intrusions because of our increased efforts in the last 18 months to improve cybersecurity at OPM, not despite them."

Archuleta also acknowledged that OPM was aware of a second, potentially far more devastating hack of security-clearance information when it publicly announced the first breach earlier this month.

According to Archuleta's written testimony, investigators discovered in May that "additional systems were likely compromised" and began notifying congressional leadership and select committees.

Other agencies were notified in early June of the second breach, the testimony reads, and that "there was a high degree of confidence that OPM systems related to background investigations of current, former, and prospective federal-government employees, and those for whom a federal background investigation was conducted, may have been compromised."

The second breach was first disclosed publicly on Friday after news reports concerning it emerged.

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz said OPM had not done enough to mitigate risk of potential hacks. The Utah Republican ran through a litany of audits and Inspector General reports issued over the past several years finding that OPM had been insufficient in upgrading its cybersecurity, which he said amounted to "leaving all of the doors and windows open in your house" for "what may have been the most devastating cyberattack in our nation's history."

"This has been going on for a long time, and yet when I read the testimony that was provided here—we're about to hear, 'Hey we're doing a great job,'" Chaffetz said. "You're not. It's failing."

Archuleta said that cyberattacks had become exponentially more frequent and sophisticated in recent years and called for more to be done across government and the private sector to better defend against data breaches.

"Government and nongovernment entities are under constant attack by evolving and advanced persistent threats and criminal actors," she said. "These adversaries are sophisticated, well-funded, and focused. In an average month, OPM, for example, thwarts 10 million confirmed intrusion attempts targeting our network. These attacks will not stop—if anything, they will increase."

Archuleta also made a direct appeal to federal workers, saying, "The security of your personal data is of paramount importance." She added that OPM was "committed to a full and complete investigation of these incidents and are taking action to mitigate vulnerabilities exposed by intrusions."

OPM announced earlier this month that the personal data—such as Social Security numbers, names, birthdays, and addresses—of approximately 4 million former and current federal employees was swiped in a breach that began last year, was detected in April, and China is believed to have committed. Reports have surfaced since to suggest the hack was far broader and more debilitating than has been publicly acknowledged.

On Friday, the government announced that the hackers had succeeded in staging a second, potentially far more comprehensive hack of the agency that exposed sensitive security-clearance information of intelligence and military personnel. The White House and others have not yet commented on how damaging that hack—also believed to be orchestrated by China—could be for American agents and spies, some of whom would likely be stationed abroad.

Chaffetz pressed Archuleta to provide more detail about the size of the OPM intrusion, citing reports that it may implicate as many as 14 million individuals, but she repeatedly demurred on grounds that an investigation into the hack is ongoing. Chaffetz also tried repeatedly to force an answer out of Archuleta as to whether sensitive information of military personnel, contractors, or CIA agents was compromised, but each time she said she would need to discuss that information in a classified setting.

"You have completely and utterly failed," Chaffetz told Archuleta, noting that the Inspector General's Office had found the security systems so flawed last year that a recommendation was made to temporarily take the databases offline.

"You made a conscious decision not to do that, you kept it open, the information was vulnerable, and the hackers got it," Chaffetz, raising his voice, said. "They're going to prey on the American people."

Sylvia Burns, the chief information officer for the Department of Interior, said officials believed that only OPM data had been accessed during the hack and that other government agencies were likely not compromised, though she noted that the investigation is still ongoing.

OPM Assistant Inspector General Michael Esser criticized the office for having a "history of struggling to comply with" the Federal Information Security Management Act. Esser also highlighted concerns about the use of IT systems that lack valid authorization checks.

At least one lawmaker suggested Tuesday that some members of OPM leadership should resign. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who holds a degree in computer science from Stanford, used the hearing to condemn a "high level of technological incompetence" across government and noted that when other agencies are beset by scandal, high-ranking officials are often forced to step down.

"I'm looking here today for a few good people to step forward, take responsibility and resign for the good of the nation," Lieu said. Chaffetz promptly responded: "Well said."

This story has been updated.