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WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson on Wednesday said he is furious at the loss of 26.5 million veterans’ personal data and the amount of time it took agency employees to react to the problem.

“I am outraged at the loss of this veterans’ data and the fact an employee would put it at risk by taking it home in violation of our policies,” he said in a released statement. “I am also concerned about the timing of the Department’s response. ... I will not tolerate inaction and poor judgment when it comes to protecting our veterans.”

VA officials announced Monday that personal data on every veteran discharged between 1975 and April 2006 was stolen from the home of a department employee who had improperly taken the information out of the office. The files included the names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and some disability information for the veterans.

Nicholson’s comments came a day before he was scheduled to appear before House and Senate investigators to testify about the lost data.

Several veterans groups and congressional Democrats have called for the firing of the employee who mishandled the data and a major overhaul of the department’s security systems. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on Wednesday the secretary should consider resigning.

Department investigators have not said exactly when or where the information was stolen, but news reports have said the VA did not announce the theft of data until 19 days after the crime occurred.

On Wednesday, Nicholson said the timeline won’t be clear until after an investigation is complete, but he pledged to take “strong actions” once the facts are known.

“We are engaged in a very extensive review of individuals up and down the chain of command,” he said. “As the person ultimately accountable to America’s veterans, I have the duty to know exactly what occurred and to hold people responsible.”

A spokesman for the VA said no decision has been made on whether the employee who lost the data will be fired.

The crime is under investigation by FBI and local law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, the VA inspector general and the president’s new task force on identity theft have begun their own investigation of the department’s response to the incident.

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