The Obama administration reportedly concealed the true amount of information compromised by a cyberattack on the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for several days after the initial disclosure of the hack, according to a published report.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the day after the White House admitted that hackers had breached personnel files, OPM publicly denied that the security clearance forms had been compromised despite receiving information to the contrary from the FBI. The administration did not say that security clearance forms had likely been accessed by the intruders until more than a week had passed.
A OPM spokeswoman denied the claims, telling the Journal the agency had been "completely consistent" in its reporting of the data breach.
The Journal, citing U.S. officials, reported that lengthy period between disclosures was the result of a decision taken by both White House and OPM officials to report the cyberattack as two separate breaches, one of the personnel files and one of the security clearance forms. That meant that rather than saying the hack may have compromised the information of approximately 18 million people, including some who have never worked for the government, OPM initially said that only about four million people were affected.
By contrast, the paper reports, FBI officials who had to speak to lawmakers about the incident, including director James Comey, defined the theft as the result of one breach.
On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked whether the true number of people affected could be as high as 32 million, and called for OPM Director Katherine Archuleta to step down.
"I think you are part of the problem," Chaffetz told Archuleta during a hearing. "That hurricane has come and blown this building down, and I don't want to hear about putting boards up on windows (now). It's time for you to go."
In her testimony, Archuleta said the estimate of 18 million people affected "refers to a preliminary, unverified and approximate number of unique Social Security numbers in the background investigations data ... It is a number I am not comfortable with."
However, the Journal reports that in a private briefing with lawmakers Tuesday, a senior FBI official interjected and told Archuleta the number was based on OPM's own data.
Investigators believe that China was behind the cyberattack, which was discovered in April. If the security clearance forms were compromised, information about espionage operations could be exposed. Beijing has strongly denied any role in the hack.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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