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Worker pleads to passport snooping count

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A State Department contract employee pleaded guilty Wednesday to snooping into confidential passport application files, including those belonging to 60 celebrities, politicians, musicians, actors, members of the business community and others, the Justice Department said.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the department's Criminal Division, said Mark Carter, 51, of Brooklyn, N.Y., entered the plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Carter admitted to a one-count criminal information charging him with unauthorized computer access.

To date, 12 current or former State Department employees or contractors, including Carter, have pleaded guilty to illegally accessing the files, although other State Department workers also caught looking into the files — as first reported by The Washington Times in 2009 — avoided criminal charges and appear to have kept their jobs.

According to investigative memos released to The Times through an open records request, those workers glanced through the files out of boredom, "dumb curiosity" and "just being nosy." They were admonished by the department for their behavior but not prosecuted.

Plea documents in the Carter case show he worked as a contract employee for the State Department, serving as the network administrator in the Eastern District of Virginia. Mr. Breuer said Carter admitted he had access to official State Department computer databases in the regular course of his employment, including the Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS), which contains, among other data, all imaged passport applications dating to 1994.

The imaged passport applications on PIERS contain, among other things, a photograph of the passport applicant as well as certain personal information including the applicants full name, date and place of birth, current address, telephone numbers, parent information, spouses name and emergency contact information.

These confidential files are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974 and, Mr. Breuer said, access by State Department employees is strictly limited to official government duties.

In pleading guilty, Mr. Breuer said Carter admitted that between March 2007 and March 2008, he logged onto the PIERS database and illegally viewed the passport applications, which included a professional athlete and members of his family. Mr. Breuer said Carter admitted he had no official government reason to access and view these passport applications, but that his sole purpose in accessing and viewing the applications was idle curiosity.

State Department employees and contract workers came under investigation in 2008 for snooping into the passport files of presidential candidates, including then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The scandal went public after The Times reported about the unauthorized inspection of Mr. Obama's files in March 2008.

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