Tomorrow’s Obamacare Controversy, Today

A memo obtained by National Journal will likely be the GOP’s next weapon against the health care law, but in context it’s more bark than bite.

Rocky rollout:
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Dec. 24, 2013, 9:16 a.m.

If past is pre­ced­ent, Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee will soon re­lease a draft memo they re­ques­ted and re­ceived from the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment just be­fore most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans de­camped for the Christ­mas hol­i­day.

At first glance, the memo, ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al, looks very bad for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. In the Sept. 24 doc­u­ment, a top in­form­a­tion se­cur­ity of­ficer for the agency over­see­ing the Obama­care in­sur­ance ex­changes warns that the mar­ket­place “does not reas­on­ably meet … se­cur­ity re­quire­ments” and that “there is also no con­fid­ence that Per­son­al Iden­ti­fi­able In­form­a­tion (PII) will be pro­tec­ted.” Teresa Fry­er, the chief in­form­a­tion se­cur­ity of­ficer at the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vice, con­tin­ues: The fed­er­al mar­ket­place will likely “not be ready to se­curely sup­port the Af­ford­able Care Act … by Oc­to­ber 1, 2013.”

It plays right in­to the Re­pub­lic­an nar­rat­ive about Health­ The ad­min­is­tra­tion knew the web­site would not be ready by the launch date but went ahead with it any­way. And the site may still not be ad­equately pro­tect­ing con­sumers’ in­form­a­tion.

But, in con­text, the draft memo be­comes much less ex­cit­ing.

On the Fri­day be­fore Christ­mas, Rep. Dar­rell Issa, the chair­man of the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, re­leased a par­tial tran­script from an in­ter­view con­duc­ted by the pan­el’s staff with Fry­er. That par­tial tran­script, shared with ABC and CBS, sug­ges­ted that Fry­er warned the ad­min­is­tra­tion that there were two find­ings of ser­i­ous vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in the sys­tem.

However, when Demo­crats on the Over­sight Com­mit­tee re­leased parts of the tran­script omit­ted from Issa’s ver­sion, Fry­er’s com­ments looked far less ex­plos­ive, and ABC up­dated its story to re­flect the change. It turns out that by Sept. 27, a few days after Fry­er raised her con­cerns about the se­cur­ity at launch, ex­tens­ive new se­cur­ity meas­ures were ad­ded.

As she told the com­mit­tee’s in­vest­ig­at­ors, “The ad­ded pro­tec­tions that we have put in­to place in ac­cord­ance with the risk de­cision memo “¦ are best prac­tices above and bey­ond what is usu­ally re­com­men­ded.” She went on to de­scribe her con­fid­ence in the three-level se­cur­ity sys­tem and to note that there have been “no suc­cess­ful breaches [or] se­cur­ity in­cid­ents.”

Which brings us back to the draft memo we ob­tained. We should note that it was just a draft, and was nev­er sent or re­viewed by more seni­or of­ficers in the chain of com­mand, and was writ­ten three days be­fore the mit­ig­a­tion strategies went in­to ef­fect. She later told Over­sight Com­mit­tee in­vest­ig­at­ors that her earli­er re­com­mend­a­tion against giv­ing the go-ahead to launch the site — the “au­thor­ity to op­er­ate,” as it’s called — did not take in­to ac­count the mit­ig­a­tion strategies laid out in the Sept. 27 Au­thor­ity to Op­er­ate memo.

The in­vest­ig­at­ors asked Tony Trenkle, then-CMS’ top in­form­a­tion ex­ec­ut­ive, this: “So as long as the mit­ig­a­tion strategy de­scribed in the [ATO] memo was car­ried out, you con­sidered that it was, it would be suf­fi­cient to mit­ig­ate the risks de­scribed in the memo?” He re­spon­ded, “Yes.”

She ad­ded that she was “sat­is­fied” with the cur­rent se­cur­ity test­ing, and that she did not ob­ject when an­oth­er CMS in­form­a­tion se­cur­ity of­ficer de­cided to move ahead with the launch. Again, she stated: “All sys­tems are sus­cept­ible to at­tacks. There have been no suc­cess­ful at­tempts.”

As the Los Angeles Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-win­ning busi­ness colum­nist Mi­chael Hiltzik noted, “Issa has ab­so­lutely no evid­ence” to sup­port his broad­er claims that the sys­tem’s deep vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies put all kinds of con­sumers’ gov­ern­ment data at risk, and that CMS moved ahead any­way to avoid em­bar­rass­ing the White House.

Of course, sleight of hand with opaque bur­eau­crat­ic doc­u­ments is noth­ing new for Issa, but the po­ten­tial to dis­suade Amer­ic­ans from ob­tain­ing health in­sur­ance through the fed­er­al ex­changes be­cause of trumped up se­cur­ity fears has pushed re­la­tions between the com­mit­tee chair and the ad­min­is­tra­tion to a new low. It’s one thing to say without evid­ence that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is cor­rupt, but it’s an­oth­er to tell Amer­ic­ans that their So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber is at risk when there’s noth­ing to sug­gest that’s true.

But per­haps we can head off an­oth­er round of this farce by put­ting out Fry­er’s memo be­fore Issa does — in its full con­text.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misat­trib­uted Trenkle’s quote to Fry­er. It has been up­dated.

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