By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The passport files of all three major presidential candidates were breached by unauthorized searches by four employees, the State Department said yesterday, prompting apologies from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, outrage from the candidates and calls by lawmakers for further probes.
State had announced Thursday night that two contract employees had been fired and a third disciplined for separately examining Sen. Barack Obama's passport file in January, February and March. No sooner had Rice gotten off the phone yesterday morning after expressing her regrets to the Illinois Democrat and pledging a full investigation than the department announced that the passport files of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had also been inappropriately reviewed. Rice quickly placed apologetic calls to Clinton and McCain as well.
"We are going to do an investigation through the inspector general, who will get to the bottom of it and make certain that nothing more was going on," Rice told reporters. She added that she told Obama "that I myself would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file."
The nearly 200 million passport files maintained by the State Department contain individuals' passport applications, which include such raw data as each applicant's Social Security number and physical description. Otherwise, the files provide limited information; they do not contain records of overseas travel or visa stamps from previous passports.
Unless the people who accessed the candidates' files disclosed the data to an unauthorized person, they probably did not violate any law, outside lawyers said. The State Department said that it is examining whether any laws were broken, but spokesman Sean McCormack said that the employees seemed motivated by little more than "imprudent curiosity."
After receiving a 90-minute briefing from State Department officials, Obama's office issued a statement saying there were "still many unanswered questions." Obama, speaking to reporters in Portland, Ore., said he expects "a full and thorough investigation" that "should be done in conjunction with those congressional committees that have oversight function so it's not simply an internal matter."
Bush administration officials struggled yesterday to explain why repeated attempts to look at the files were not known by senior officials until they received a reporter's inquiry Thursday. The incident jarred the race for the Democratic nomination and brought back memories of a passport scandal during the 1992 race between President Bush's father and Clinton's husband, when senior State Department officials examined Bill Clinton's passport files, resulting in a two-year probe by an independent prosecutor.
"We do feel like the system worked," McCormack said, noting that the unauthorized searches were quickly identified to supervisors. "But the system isn't perfect." The employees were caught because of a computer monitoring system that is triggered when the passport file of a "high-profile person" is accessed, the State Department said.
Before entering a person's passport file, employees must answer "yes" or "no" in a screen that warns them: "You are permitted access to passport and consular personal records on a need to know basis" and "These are privileged records and are subject to the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974." Entry into the system does not give users access to other government records, officials said.
The two employees fired for examining Obama's file worked for Stanley Inc., an Arlington-based company that has handled passport processing for 15 years and just this week won a five-year, $570 million contract. Stanley's chairman, Philip Nolan of McLean, contributed $1,000 to Clinton's campaign on Feb. 20, federal election records show. He has also contributed to moderate Republicans.
"We regret the unauthorized access of any individual's private information," the firm said in a statement. "In each of these instances the employee was terminated the day the unauthorized search occurred."
A third contract employee, who looked at Obama's file on March 14, was discovered to have also examined McCain's file, McCormack said. That employee, who worked for Analysis Corp. of McLean, has been denied access to passport applications, and his or her employment status is under review, McCormack said.
John Brennan, chief executive of Analysis, gave $2,300 to Obama on Jan. 28, records show. "We deeply regret that the incident occurred and believe it is an isolated incident," the company said in an e-mail statement. It noted that at the request of the State Department, it has delayed taking action against its employee until the IG's office completes its investigation. Brennan had a 25-year career with the CIA and served as interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
A fourth worker, who accessed Clinton's file, is not a contractor but a State Department employee. The employee looked up Clinton's file during a training exercise last summer -- trainees had been told to look up a parent's application -- and was "admonished" but not fired, McCormack said.
Though Rice has ordered a probe by State's inspector general, the two fired employees no longer fall under the department's jurisdiction and could refuse to answer questions. McCormack said the department hopes the former employees will cooperate with the inquiry. State has also asked the Justice Department to help monitor the IG's probe, McCormack said.
David H. Laufman, associate independent counsel in the earlier passport scandal and now a partner at Kelley Drye Collier Shannon in Washington, said that a violation of the Privacy Act would occur if the person who accessed the information also disclosed it to someone unauthorized to received it. Even then, he said, violating the act is only a misdemeanor.
McCormack said State's passport services directorate includes 1,800 employees and 2,600 contractors. The contractors perform data entry and customer service tasks.
The State Department recently expanded the access that various government agencies and even foreign law enforcement agencies can have into the passport system, according to a notice in the Federal Register earlier this year. The notice said the action was being taken "for counter-terrorism and other purposes such as border security and fraud prevention."
In a recent report, State said that it was trying to balance access to data with the appropriate level of security. "One lesson of September 11, 2001, is that restricting access to information poses serious risks, often outweighing the impact of potential unauthorized disclosure," the department said.
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling in Washington and staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.