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Passport snooping is detailed

A probe finds 'hits' on the files of the rich and famous, with some viewed more than 100 times in recent years.

July 04, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal investigation of unauthorized snooping into government passport files has found evidence that such breaches may be far more common than previously disclosed, and the State Department inspector general is calling for an overhaul of the program's management.

In a report issued Thursday, the inspector general found "many control weaknesses" in the department's administration program, including what investigators said was a lack of sound policies on training staff, accessing electronic records and disciplining workers who break privacy rules.

The investigation was launched in March after it was disclosed that government and contract workers had snooped in the files of three presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.

To assess the extent of the problem, investigators assembled a sample of 150 famous Americans, including athletes, politicians and entertainers, and examined how many times their files in a government database were viewed over a six-year period. The files of 127 people in the sample were accessed at least once; in total, these files were "hit" 4,418 times. Nine of the files were opened more than 100 times.

The report does not try to assess which of the hits were unauthorized, but it says the 85% rate "appears to be excessive."

State Department officials did not identify the celebrities whose files were included in the sample. More than 20,500 federal and contract employees have access to the records database, including State Department staff and officials involved in investigations, security assessments and other analyses, the report says.

Five people have been fired so far. Officials said they were investigating whether more workers had violated procedures or federal privacy laws and deserved punishment.

Michael Kirby, a senior official in the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said officials were "reviewing the circumstances under which people looked at these records, and we will take action."

The initial disclosure of snooping on the candidates' files raised questions about whether Bush administration officials might have been looking for embarrassing information for partisan political reasons. But officials say they have found no such evidence.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the report "deeply disturbing." In a statement, he urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "to act promptly on the inspector general's recommendations and correct these systemwide failures."

The files flap has been embarrassing to the administration and prompted Rice to apologize to the candidates.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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