State Dept. Contractors Caught Snooping Obama Records

Via Marc Ambinder and reporter Bill Gertz of the Moonie Washington Times, three State Department contract employees were recently caught sneaking peeks at Barack Obama’s passport records. The relevant particulars from Gertz’s piece:

The officials, all contract workers, used their authorized computer network access to look up files within the department’s consular affairs section, which processes and stores passport information, and read Mr. Obama’s passport application and other records, in violation of department privacy rules, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was notified of the security breach today, and responded by saying security measures used to monitor records of high-profile Americans worked properly in detecting the breaches.

Mr. McCormack said the officials did not appear to be seeking information on behalf of any political candidate or party.

“As far as we can tell, in each of the three cases, it was imprudent curiosity,” Mr. McCormack told The Washington Times. …

One administration official said the FBI is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the officials involved in the unauthorized access incidents related to Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat. An FBI spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Government records of political candidates are tightly restricted because of concerns they could be used against candidates or the data could be altered as part of campaign dirty tricks. …

Each time an employee logs on to the passport-records network, they are informed that the records are protected by the Privacy Act and are “available only on a need-to-know basis,” he said. But no technical bar prevents a person, once he is in the system, from gaining access to Privacy Act-protected records to which he has no “need-to-know” rights.

But the network has an electronic monitoring system that is tripped when an employee accesses a record of a prominent person, like Mr. Obama. The alarm then triggers an inquiry into the incident, and “when the answer is not satisfactory, a supervisor is notified.”

More paranoic quarters of the blogosphere have leapt to the conclusion that the lookups represent Republican dirty tricks.

However, given both that the GOP presumably has people in the bureaucracy with access to the records who aren’t low-level contractors doing data-entry work, the timing of the incidents following news events (rather than months or years ago, when any opposition researcher worth his or her salt would be scouting potential targets like Obama), and the fact that any professional dirt-digger would know that searches like these in government databases raise red flags automatically, I strongly suspect that Sean McCormack is right to attribute these actions to “imprudent curiosity” or, as Mark Kleiman suggests, lame independent efforts to find some dirty laundry that could be shopped to opposition candidates or the media. Since the records in the application system appear to be very limited (basically, just what the was on the application form submitted to the State Department, with the only travel records being the optional “plans” disclosed thereon) I doubt you’d find much dirty laundry there even if you tried.

All that said, the FBI should continue its investigation to ensure that these were simply incidences of bad judgment by the contract workers. Presumably the fired employees are subject to criminal prosecution for violating the Privacy Act, subject to prosecutorial discretion; given the negative publicity the case has drawn, I’d imagine the chances of the employees being brought up on charges are quite high, even if they were just being willfully stupid.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Chris: Your analysis sounds right to me. Some records you can’t just keep behind lock and key else it burdens the entire system. Flagging access, however, like subtly numbering pages of copies of classified documents, doesn’t prevent improper use, but sure makes prosecution easier after the fact.

  2. Richard Gardner says:

    This does make me wonder what records are kept during passport renewals. The basic passport application is rather humdrum, place of birth, parents, etc. But when you renew a passport, you send in the old one, so your travels are potentially recorded. I saw potentially because:

    – Not all places stamp the passport, like most of my travels to Mexico and Canada.
    – Not all passport stamps are legible, nor do arrivals and departures match. I can just see a minor army trying to figure out passport stamps (not).
    – Some folks have filled up their passports, and get extra pages that can be removed.

    But still, I wonder. But a basic passport application, nothing there.

  3. Cui bono? I find it humorous that the GOP is immediately and automatically suspected, especially given the political inclinations of so many in the State Department.

  4. Bithead says:

    The charge of the lightly brained… that the breach is a major deal and is the work of the Booooosh administation, ignores the idea that State has been a thorn in Bush’s side since day one.Such, I suppose are the symptoms of the paranoia and political opportunism we’ve come to expect from those suffering BDS….The fact is, though, that State and the WH can’t agree on LUNCH, much less a evil scheme to defame Obama… (Who, it should be pointed out, apparently doesn’t need the help, he’s doing that job rather well on his own, lately).

  5. Karl says:

    But the network has an electronic monitoring system that is tripped when an employee accesses a record of a prominent person, like Mr. Obama. The alarm then triggers an inquiry into the incident, and “when the answer is not satisfactory, a supervisor is notified.”

    Giving them the credit of the doubt here: such electronic monitoring systems and automated inquiries are not the norm as far as I know. So I certainly would give the department or their contractor credit for taking steps to perform these kinds of security checks.

    In fact the state of the art in this field has to my knowledge only significantly advanced since Bush was elected to office.

    Given my opinion of the Bush administration I’m personally floored that this became public knowledge!