Another Watergate? The scheming of would-be plumbers searching for vulnerabilities in the possible Democratic presidential nominee's past?
Or three bored cube rats who were just looking out of "imprudent curiosity?"
Thrice this year, on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14, contract employees of the State Department accessed Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) passport file. So far, everything beyond that simple data point is unclear.
The State Department refuses to release the names of the contractors (there are apparently two) or the employees -- two of whom have been fired, one "disciplined." It's not clear what information, exactly, they accessed -- "whether the employees saw anything other than the basic personal data such as name, citizenship, age and place of birth that is required when a person fills out a passport application."
And, of course, it's not clear why they were doing it. The verdict of a "preliminary investigation," the State Department says, is that they were motivated by "imprudent curiosity."
And at this point it's unclear who will do more than a preliminary investigation. Although Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy told reporters last night that they were asking the State Department's inspector general (an office still stinging from the resignation of Cookie Krongard) to investigate, but as the AP points out, the inspector general probably wouldn't be able to do much because the employees no longer work for the Department. So who else will? The searches may have violated the Privacy Act, but another State Department official says it's premature to consider whether the FBI or Justice Department should be involved. Meanwhile an "administration official" tells The Washington Times that the FBI is conducting a "preliminary inquiry."
State Department officials say that the breaches came to light as a result of a reporter's query yesterday afternoon (it's not clear exactly what that query was). The Department's database flags the access of the files of "high profile" people, so it was easy to discover the breaches once they were looking for them. Why weren't they discovered before?
"I will fully acknowledge this information should have been passed up the line," Kennedy told reporters in a conference call Thursday night. "It was dealt with at the office level."
So what about those supervisors? It's unclear. The contractors, Kennedy says, do work like data entry, customer service and other administrative tasks for the Department.
The whole thing compels a comparison to 1992, when Steven Berry, a Republican appointee at the Department, was discovered to have pulled Bill Clinton's passport records. The independent counsel selected to investigate, Joe DiGenova, found after a three-year, $2.2 million probe, that Berry had indeed been up to no good, but no one higher up the chain had known about it and it wasn't criminal anyway.
The State Department is apparently going to be briefing the Obama campaign later today. We'll keep you updated.