Inside the Passports Probe

The State Department is investigating whether four employees-at two different government contractors-improperly examined confidential data from the passport application files of the three leading presidential candidates.

Two employees of Stanley Inc., of Arlington, have already been fired as a result of the alleged unauthorized disclosures, according to a senior government official who asked for anonymity in discussing sensitive material. Late Friday, the State Department identified the other company as The Analysis Corporation.

The senior government official said that Sen. Barack Obama's passport application file, available electronically in a confidential State Department data base, had been accessed without authorization on three occasions earlier this year: January 29, February 21 and March 14. Similar files relating to the passports of Sen. Hillary Clinton and GOP presidential nominee John McCain were also accessed, though the dates of those episodes were not immediately available. Based on currently available information, the source said, State Department officials believe that the Clinton and McCain files were each accessed only once without authorization. One of the employees under investigation was responsible for one unauthorized look at Obama's file and one unauthorized look at McCain's, the source says. Three different contractor employees looked at Obama's passport record, the official said.

In a written statement, Stanley Inc. said: "Two Stanley subcontractor employees were involved in the unauthorized access of Sen. Barack Obama's passport files. In each of these instances, the employee was terminated the day the unauthorized search occurred. At this time, we are unaware of the involvement of any Stanley or subcontractor employees in the unauthorized searches of Sen. John McCain's or Sen. Hillary Clinton's passport files." Stanley added: "We regret the unauthorized access of any individual's private information." (This past week, Stanley issued a press release announcing that the State Department had awarded it a five-year, $570 million contract to continue support for the department's passport-processing operations.)

Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, told journalists, "this is an outrageous breach of security and privacy...We demand to know who opened Sen. Obama's file." Reuters news service quoted McCain saying that "if anyone's privacy is breached, they deserve an apology and a full investigation and I believe that will take place." And Clinton's office released a statement saying "Senator Clinton will closely monitor the State Department's investigation into this and the other breaches of private passport information."

The passport files database includes optical scans of paper passport applications as well as confirming documentation such as birth certificates, according to two government officials familiar with such files. The files can also include such basic personal information as Social Security numbers, dates of birth, details on family lineage and information on emergency contacts. Further, the files could contain some information on a passport applicant's recent travel destinations. By law, the government is required to keep all of this data confidential and to use it for official purposes only.

But some of this information is also publicly available from other sources, the sources pointed out. And the official database would not likely contain sensitive information of the sort that could influence a campaign-unless examiners had a question about the passport applicant or the authenticity of that person's documentation.

Because the unauthorized intrusions involved all three major presidential candidates, and involved employees at more than one contracting company, State Department investigators at this stage believe the incidents are the product of "curiosity" on the part of contractors' employees, rather than some kind of political dirty trick. At this point, investigators do not appear to believe that all the data intrusions were part of a single conspiracy, though they do not completely rule out a possible political connection to the incidents.

The State Department's inspector general has been asked to investigate the incidents. In addition to examining the reasons for the unauthorized data breaches, investigators are also trying to determine why State Department executives were not informed about the incidents before this week. A government official said that the intrusions, which were automatically flagged by security software embedded in the passport database, were reported to the chief of an office that supervises passport operations. But higher-ranking officials, ranging from the deputy assistant secretary of State who supervises passport operations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice herself, were told nothing about the intrusions until after a Washington Times reporter began asking questions earlier this week.