Candidates’ privacy lapse doesn’t bode well for rest of us
Passport files of three presidential candidates were improperly examined by State Department employees.
A Bush administration spokesman bristled when a news reporter referenced the Watergate scandal in asking a question about breaches of supposedly secure passport files of three presidential candidates -- and for good reason.
Nothing about political "dirty tricks," a hallmark of Richard Nixon's campaigns, had yet been uncovered or suggested as the State Department began an investigation of several incidents in which information about Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain were examined without authorization.
It might turn out the breach of privacy by at least four contract workers for the Office of Passport Services was merely "imprudent curiosity," as described by the spokesman, Sean McCormack.
However, their unauthorized actions brought to light a failure of senior State Department officials to make sure private records remain private and raised questions about the security of information of ordinary citizens as well as high-profile individuals.
While identity thieves would have little success if they attempted to pose as the candidates, the information in passport files -- Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and so on -- would be enough to harm lesser-known persons.
In addition, a system of checks, which the department instituted after a breach of information of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, did not work to prevent a series of improper snooping into Obama's electronic files over a period of three months.
In fact, the State Department didn't inform Obama about the incidents until after senior officials were questioned by the Washington Times, which was about to publish an article about them. The reason, officials say, is because they themselves weren't informed, when they should have been, had security procedures functioned properly.
The Obama breach prompted reviews of McCain's and Clinton's files that showed Clinton's had been viewed last summer by an employee undergoing training; the worker was admonished, but not fired. Obama's file was breached in January, February and March by three different workers, one of whom also checked McCain's. Two were fired, one has been disciplined, pending further investigation.
The employees -- among 2,600 contract workers hired to speed applications for passports backlogged by new Homeland Security requirements -- work for two companies, one of which was awarded a five-year contract extension this week worth $570 million. The State Department should nullify the contract.
Though the breaches could be the irresponsible actions of a bunch of nosy workers, the situation requires internal as well as external investigation. Moreover, corrective measures should be established. The American public must have confidence that government has the means and the will to safeguard privacy.