Posted: March 21, 2008 3:02 PM
Passport Files of 3 Presidential Candidates Breached
After news broke Thursday night that Sen. Barack Obama’s passport files were breached, the State Department acknowledged Friday that files on Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain were also improperly accessed.
The State Department announced Thursday that two contract employees were fired and a third was disciplined for looking at Obama’s files without authorization.
The dates of the Obama breach “would be the day after the New Hampshire primary, the day of the Democratic debate in Texas and the day the [Jeremiah] Wright story really hit,” Josh Marshall noted at Talking Points Memo.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was informed of the Obama breach Thursday evening. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the access to McCain and Clinton’s passport files was not discovered until Friday, after officials became aware of the first breach and conducted a separate search.
Rice spoke with at least Obama and Clinton on Friday, expressing her regrets. The State Department planned to brief all three candidates’ staffs.
“I told [Obama] that I was sorry and I told him that I myself would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file and therefore, I will stay on top of it and get to the bottom of it,” Rice told reporters.
McCormack said the breaches were detected by internal State Department computer checks. The department’s top management officer, Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy, said certain records are flagged, including those of high-profile people, to tip off supervisors when someone tries to view the records without a proper reason, the Associated Press reported.
“This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an administration that has shown little regard for either over the last eight years,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Kennedy and McCormack said it was too soon to say whether a crime was committed. The searches may violate the federal Privacy Act. Kennedy said he is consulting with State Department lawyers.
McCormack attributed the breaches to “imprudent curiosity.” He said the individual who accessed Obama’s files also reviewed McCain’s file. This contract employee has been reprimanded, but not fired. The individual no longer has access to passport records, he said.
“We are reviewing our options with that person” and their employment status, McCormack said.
McCormack declined to name the companies that employed the contractors, despite demands by a senior House Democrat that such information is in the public interest.
“At this point, we just started an investigation,” he said. “We want to err on the side of caution.”
Traveling in Paris, McCain said any breach of passport privacy deserves an apology and a full investigation.
Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for Clinton, said of the current breach: “It’s outrageous and the Bush administration has to get to the bottom of it,” reported the AP.
The firings and unspecified discipline of the third employee already had occurred when senior State Department officials learned of the breaches. Kennedy called that a failing.
“I will fully acknowledge this information should have been passed up the line,” Kennedy said Thursday. “It was dealt with at the office level.”
Regarding the Obama breach, at least three supervisors didn’t forward the information up the chain of command, McCormack said. Others might be culpable in accessing the McCain and Clinton files.
Kennedy said the department doesn’t research political affiliation during background checks on passport workers. “Now that this has arisen, this becomes a germane question, and that will be something for the appropriate investigation to look into,” he said.
The disclosure of inappropriate passport inquiries recalled an incident in 1992, when a Republican political appointee at the State Department was demoted over a passport records search of presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who was challenging then President George H.W. Bush.
The State Department’s inspector general said the official had helped arrange the search in an attempt to find politically damaging information about Clinton, who had been rumored to have considered renouncing his citizenship to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
The State Department said the official, Steven Berry, had shown “serious lapses in judgment.”
After a three-year, $2.2 million probe, a federal independent counsel exonerated officials in the incident, saying that while some of the actions investigated were “stupid, dumb and partisan,” they were not criminal. The independent counsel also said that Berry and others who were disciplined for their involvement were treated unfairly.