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.”
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.