Passport Backlog Put Data More in Hands of Contractors

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The contract employees who snooped into the passport files of two presidential candidates this year were part of a private workforce that has increasingly assumed responsibility for processing the sensitive documents, State Department and industry officials said yesterday.

The department began farming out the work to private firms nearly two decades ago, but the ratio of contractors to government employees exploded in the past year when passport applications suddenly began to overwhelm the State Department.

From 2001 to 2007, 40 to 45 percent of the workers handling passports were contractors, but now 60 percent of the 4,400 passport employees work for private firms, State Department officials said yesterday.

Three of those contract workers were discovered last week to have peeked at the private passport files of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). A State Department trainee last summer also looked at the file of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). The workers are a small part of an army of contractors that has helped keep the official federal workforce flat at about 1.9 million workers for years. The number topped 7.6 million in 2005 -- the most recent year for which figures are available -- an increase of 2.4 million over 2002, according to Paul C. Light of New York University, who compiles the most authoritative survey of government contract employees.

Light said that about two-thirds of those contract workers are service employees -- people who answer phones, input data or handle customer inquiries -- who work side by side with federal employees. "They sit at the same desks but do not have the same benefits," he said.

Stanley Inc. of Arlington, one of the State Department contractors involved, said that two subcontractor employees who snooped at Obama's file in January and February were fired the day the firm discovered what they had done. "You can't fire a federal employee that quickly," Light noted.

Stanley supervisors oversaw the subcontractors; State Department officials managed the Stanley supervisors.

The State Department's policy is that only "inherently government functions" must be handled by federal employees, a senior State Department official said. Thus the clerk who accepts a passport application, the person who scans the documents into the computer and the person who prints the book are all contractors; the people who review the documentation and approve or deny the application are federal employees, as are the overall supervisors of the scanners and printers.

For Stanley, the booming business has been highly profitable, especially since the government began requiring passports for travel to Canada and Mexico. "Passport services revenue grew 61 percent from the third quarter of last fiscal year," Chief Financial Officer Brian J. Clark told Wall Street analysts in January, accounting for 14 percent of the company's total revenue. Stanley recently branched out into processing visas and immigration petitions for foreigners seeking to come to the United States.

A third contract employee -- who looked at Obama's and McCain's files -- worked for the Analysis Corp. of McLean. The company does not process passports but instead staffs an after-hours operations center for State, handling queries from border crossings and overseas inquiries about passports or visas that may appear suspicious. That employee has been suspended from handling such data pending an investigation.

All three were caught because they accessed files secretly flagged as belonging to a high-profile person, triggering a notice to a supervisor. The State Department declined to disclose how many such files have been flagged, saying it would undermine the detection program.

"It is not a handful, but it's not thousands," said the senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He added that the criteria for inclusion on the list are being reviewed.

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