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Hacked federal agency did not take basic safety steps

Office of Personnel Management director contends problems were decades in the making

Katherine Archuleta testified at a House hearing Monday.
Katherine Archuleta testified at a House hearing Monday.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The agency that allowed hackers linked to China to steal private information about nearly every federal employee — and detailed personal histories of millions with security clearances — failed for years to take basic steps to secure its computer networks, officials acknowledged to Congress on Tuesday.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee described their outrage over what they called gross negligence by the Office of Personnel Management. The agency’s network was breached last year in two massive cyberattacks only recently revealed.

The criticism came from within, as well. Michael Esser, the agency’s assistant inspector general for audit, detailed a yearslong failure by the agency to adhere to reasonable cybersecurity practices, and he said that for a long time, the people running the agency’s information technology had no expertise.

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Last year, he said, an inspector general’s audit recommended that the agency shut down some of its networks because they were so vulnerable. The director, Katherine Archuleta, declined, saying it would interfere with the agency’s mission.

The hackers were already inside her networks, she later acknowledged.

‘‘You failed utterly and totally,’’ said committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican. ‘‘They recommended it was so bad that you shut it down and you didn’t.’’

Archuleta, stumbling occasionally under withering questions from lawmakers, sought to defend her tenure and portray the agency’s problems as decades in the making as its equipment aged. She appeared to cast blame on her recent predecessors, one of whom, John Berry, is the US ambassador to Australia. Offered chances to apologize and resign, she declined to do either.

Chaffetz said the two breaches ‘‘may be the most devastating cyberattack in our nation’s history,’’ and said the office’s security policy was akin to leaving its doors and windows unlocked and expecting nothing to be stolen.

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‘‘I am as distressed as you are about how long these systems have gone neglected,’’ Archuleta said, adding at another point, ‘‘The whole of government is responsible and it will take all of us to solve the issue.’’

Archuleta and the other witnesses offered few new details about the breaches in the public hearing, deferring most questions about methods and damage to a later, classified session.

After that session, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, demanded that the committee hear testimony from two contractors, KeyPoint and USIS, that fell victim to hacks last year. Earlier, Cummings and other lawmakers questioned whether the Office of Personnel Management’s network was compromised first through hacking of the contractors, and agency officials declined to answer.

During the open hearing, Donna Seymour, the agency’s chief information officer, confirmed that personnel information on 4.2 million current and former federal employees had been stolen, not just accessed.

The number of security clearance holders whose data has been taken is not known, she said. But the records go back to 1985 and include contractors as well as federal employees. Some government officials estimate the number could be up to 14 million.

And because their security clearance applications contain personal information about friends and family, those people’s data are vulnerable as well.

Seymour also disclosed that any federal employees who submitted service history records to the agency, whether or not their personnel records are kept by the agency, probably had their information stolen. This raised the specter that intelligence agency employees who were not kept in the main personnel system for security reasons may have been exposed anyway.

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Another fear is that covert intelligence officers working undercover as government employees may have been made vulnerable.

If their names are not in the federal employee database, that could be revealing to foreign adversaries.