McCain Lays Into OPM Director Over Data Breaches

The head of the Office of Personnel Management faced a third consecutive day of intense questioning over her handling of a series of data breaches last year.

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Kaveh Waddell
June 25, 2015, 9:51 a.m.

Kath­er­ine Archu­leta’s week is not get­ting any easi­er.

Archu­leta, the dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, ap­peared in front of Con­gress for the third pub­lic com­mit­tee hear­ing in three days, as law­makers try to ob­tain more in­form­a­tion about the ex­tent and dam­age of a series of data breaches that af­fected OPM last year.

The dir­ect­or fielded ques­tions at a Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee hear­ing Thursday about her per­form­ance at the helm of the gov­ern­ment’s per­son­nel agency, com­ing un­der with­er­ing fire from Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron John­son and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain, both of whom stopped just short of call­ing for Archu­leta to step down.

In a heated ex­change with the OPM dir­ect­or, Mc­Cain asked Archu­leta to con­firm ba­sic de­tails about the scope of the data breach and the iden­tity of the at­tack­ers, ques­tions which Archu­leta re­fused to an­swer.

“Even though it’s all pub­lic know­ledge that it was China, you’re not ready to tell the com­mit­tee that you know that it was China that was re­spons­ible for the hack­ing,” Mc­Cain said, after Archu­leta re­peatedly dodged the ques­tion. “Is that true?”

“OPM is not re­spons­ible for at­tri­bu­tion,” Archu­leta said. “We rely on our col­leagues to talk about that.”

Mc­Cain was left al­most speech­less. “Your com­mit­tee, your busi­ness, is to track and to re­spond to hack­ing, and, well, uh—….”

The Ari­zona sen­at­or then turned to ques­tion­ing Archu­leta about the size of the data breaches, since she had pushed back in her open­ing state­ment against widely cited press re­ports that more than 18 mil­lion re­cords were af­fected by the hacks.

“Why wouldn’t you, when there’s a clear situ­ation here of an al­leg­a­tion by the most re­spec­ted law en­force­ment agency in Amer­ica of 18.2 mil­lion [af­fected in­di­vidu­als], and you’re al­leging that it’s 4 mil­lion, wouldn’t you sit down with the FBI to say, ‘Hey, the Amer­ic­an people need to know’?” Mc­Cain asked.

Archu­leta said that her col­leagues had met with the FBI, but she had not.

“It doesn’t rise to your level of at­ten­tion? I see,” Mc­Cain replied.

“Ms. Archu­leta, I must say, I have seen a lot of per­form­ances,” Mc­Cain said as he fin­ished his round of ques­tions. “Yours ranks as one of the most in­ter­est­ing.”

Mc­Cain’s frus­tra­tion with the lack of in­form­a­tion about the breaches mirrored the dis­ap­point­ment of oth­er sen­at­ors Tues­day after they at­ten­ded a closed-door brief­ing, where they had hoped to get clear­er an­swers to some of their ba­sic ques­tions about the data breaches. But many said the in­form­a­tion they re­ceived in secret didn’t go bey­ond any­thing that had already been pub­licly re­vealed.

And Archu­leta’s fiery con­front­a­tion with Mc­Cain came a day after she ap­peared for the second time in two weeks be­fore the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, where Chair­man Jason Chaf­fetz ac­cused her of ly­ing out­right about a breach of OPM serv­ers that was re­vealed in March 2014, and called for her to resign.

Chaf­fetz’s ire was echoed by Sen. Steve Daines, a Re­pub­lic­an from Montana who on Tues­day called for Archu­leta to step down. Daines has said he re­ceived a let­ter from the per­son­nel agency no­ti­fy­ing him that he was af­fected by the OPM data breach.

Even Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Jeb Bush joined the chor­us, telling a ra­dio host on Tues­day that Pres­id­ent Obama should fire Archu­leta for the “sheer in­com­pet­ence” her agency dis­played “across the board.”

John­son also cut Archu­leta no slack dur­ing his com­mit­tee’s Thursday meet­ing. The fact that Archu­leta has not yet met with the OPM in­spect­or gen­er­al or with FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey to dis­cuss the data breaches “really gives me great pause in terms of hav­ing con­fid­ence that the cur­rent man­age­ment team at OPM really is up to the task,” John­son said.

But not every­one at Thursday’s hear­ing rushed to cri­ti­cize Archu­leta. Tony Scott, the U.S. chief in­form­a­tion of­ficer, said he thinks the lead­er­ship has been ef­fect­ive and that per­haps law­makers are point­ing fin­gers in the wrong dir­ec­tion.

“We need to be care­ful about dis­tin­guish­ing fire-starters from fire­fight­ers,” Scott said. “In this par­tic­u­lar case, they have my full sup­port.”

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