By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
Two State Department employees were fired and a third has been disciplined for improperly accessing Sen. Barack Obama's passport file, the State Department announced last night.
Senior department officials said they learned of the incidents only when a reporter made an inquiry yesterday afternoon. They said an initial investigation indicated that the employees -- all of whom worked on contract -- were motivated by "imprudent curiosity."
Bill Burton, spokesman for Obama's presidential campaign, called the incidents "an outrageous breach of security and privacy." He said this is "a serious matter that merits a complete investigation," adding that the campaign will "demand to know who looked at Senator Obama's passport file, for what purpose, and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach."
Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy, in a hastily arranged conference call with reporters, said he asked the State Department inspector general to open an inquiry into the matter and acknowledged that it might need to be expanded.
He also said he would brief Obama, who is locked in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, today on the matter.
Kennedy said that he did not know yet whether any laws were broken or whether the employees shared the information with others. He said that the incidents, which occurred at three offices, on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14, should have been "passed up the line" much sooner and that officials were seeking to determine why they had not been disclosed earlier.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was briefed yesterday afternoon, requested a "full investigation," department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The employees were each caught because of a computer-monitoring system that is triggered when the passport account of a "high-profile person" is accessed, department spokesman Tom Casey said. The system, which focuses on politicians and celebrities, was put in place in recent years, after the State Department was embroiled in a scandal involving the access of the passport records of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.
In that case, a special prosecutor determined that officials at senior levels were knowledgeable about the passport breaches. That investigation cost $2.2 million, but no one was charged.
The department declined to release the names of the employees or the two companies for which they worked.
Kennedy said the contract employees -- who helped process some of the 18 million passport applications the department handles every year -- had access to personal records as part of their jobs in data entry, customer service and other administrative tasks. He said that contract employees undergo "public integrity checks," such as a review of police records, but that the department does not examine political affiliation. "That would be inappropriate," he said.
The employee involved in the March 14 incident has only been disciplined because that investigation is still continuing, said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Though the workers were caught by a computer system that focuses on high-profile people, Casey said that a computer report is generated on every access to passport records and that spot checks are made to ensure that State Department employees are not violating the Privacy Act.