V.A. Swindle

Data breached


For more evidence of the dangers of letting government officials demand sensitive information from citizens, look no further than the ongoing scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.). Once focused on the apparently lethal mistreatment of military veterans by a system created to provide them with medical care, the story now also encompasses retaliation by officials against V.A. employees who raised concerns about such mistreatment.

"In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers," Carolyn Lerner from the Office of Special Counsel said during a congressional hearing in April. Lerner's office is tasked with shielding government whistleblowers from retaliation; she also told lawmakers that V.A. staffers now make up 40 percent of her office's caseload.

Among the whistleblowers whose medical records may have been inappropriately browsed by government officials is Brandon Coleman, who was placed on administrative leave after complaining that suicidal veterans were receiving dangerously poor treatment. Coleman showed reason evidence that, even after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took up his case and V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald personally met with him, his private medical records were illegally accessed.

Many government agencies possess similarly sensitive information about Americans. The Internal Revenue Service and Census Bureau compel disclosure of personal data, law enforcement agencies gather it through legal filings and court records, and intelligence operations collect it in ways that are at times questionably legal. Much of this information gets stored away indefinitely, and as the ongoing V.A. saga demonstrates, the resulting databases can be mined for information to be used against dissident employees—or anybody else.