Fed personnel chief mum on number of employees hit by data breaches

In a Wednesday hearing, members of a congressional committee press OPM director Katherine Archuleta for numbers and details on hacks affecting federal workers.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
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Laura Hautala
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Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, appears before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Millions of people were affected by recently revealed hacks of US government databases, but how many millions remains a mystery.

Was it 4 million, 18 million, or a whopping 32 million? The number remains unclear, and Katherine Archuleta, the director of the agency in charge of the data, declined to give a specific number at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Hacking has become a persistent and troubling problem for the US government. These hacks are believed to be the largest in a recent wave of attacks targeting government agencies suspected of originating overseas.

The New York Times reported last year that Chinese hackers worked their way into US government servers in March 2014 in an attempt to steal information on thousands of federal employees with top-secret clearance. A security breach of an unclassified network used by White House advisers was quickly blamed on hackers thought to be working for the Russian government.

Archuleta, who runs the Office of Personnel Management, said her agency still maintains that the most recent breach on her department netting 4.2 million people's Social Security numbers. A union of federal workers contests that number, saying the breach affected every current and retired federal employee.

But when it came to the breach of a separate system that compromised background check documents, Archuleta declined to specify how many records hackers got their hands on. CNN reported on Tuesday that FBI Director James Comey estimates the hack exposed 18 million Social Security numbers. Archuleta acknowledged that she's heard reports of that number, but said she believed the method used to get the figure was flawed.

"It is not a number that I feel comfortable, at this time, represents the total number affected individuals," Archuleta said, indicating it could up or down.

Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and other politicians have begun to call for Archuleta's resignation. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the Oversight and & Government Reform Committee, expressed dissatisfaction with Archuleta's testimony and at times accused her of withholding information.

Chaffetz quoted Archuleta's previous statements from February that she oversaw the records of 32 million people and then asked how many people were affected by the hacks.

"Is it 32 million people?" he asked.

"I'm not going to give you a number I'm not sure of," Archuleta said.