In an incident underscoring the insecurity of many government records, the State Department revealed that at least four workers snooped into supposedly private passport files of all three presidential contenders.
The breaches involved electronic files that contained personal information about Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. State Department officials refused to say exactly what was in the files, but it could have included a wealth of personal details that could aid political opponents such as the candidates' date and place of birth, address, and the countries the person had traveled to.
A State Department spokesman said "imprudent curiosity" was the likely motivation for the incidents, a claim some critics characterized as doubtful. They said the spying was reminiscent of a 1992 breach by a Republican political appointee at the department into Bill Clinton's passport records when he was a presidential candidate running against President George H.W. Bush.
Two of the workers were employed by Virginia-based Stanley Inc., which earlier this week won a five-year, $570m contract to provide passport services for the State Department. The firm has provided government services since 1992, when it helped establish the National Passport Center, according to Federal Computer Week. The employees were fired Friday, a day after the incident came to light.
Obama's passport file was improperly accessed on three separate occasions, in January, February and March, by the two Stanley employees and a third contract employee whose employer remains unknown. This third person, who has been disciplined but remains on the job, also accessed the records of McCain earlier this year. The individual no longer has access to passport records.
The snooping episodes were detected by an internal process inside the State Department's computer system that flags each time a high-profile person's records are viewed without a valid reason. Despite the system, senior department officials only learned of the breaches on Thursday after receiving an inquiry from a reporter at The Washington Times.
Hilary Clinton's file was accessed last summer during a training session for State Department employees. The person was immediately admonished for the violation.
The State Department's inspector general is investigating. The House Foreign Affairs Committee also plans to look into the breach. ®