- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Several times already this year, State Department contract workers breached Sen. Barack Obama’s passport files. Then, on Friday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack revealed that the same thing had happened to the files of Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain. A full accounting of how this occurred — and most importantly, what the snoops were after — must be made public.

The department is treating this as a “personnel matter.” But Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy should ensure that the inspector-general’s findings are released once State gets to the bottom of this mess. Congress should also task the Government Accountability Office to investigate. In an election year, snooping in confidential files is potentially much more than a personnel matter. There also remains the potentially pregnant question of identity theft.

These breaches have been characterized as either egregious political fishing expeditions or extremely actionable office misconduct, for which two employees rightly lost their jobs. If it is the latter, this story becomes a footnote to campaign 2008 and a cautionary tale for federal employees: Save the shenanigans for outside the classified government work environment. As the 2006 Department of Veterans Affairs data breach showed, security violations can result from a wide range of seemingly inconsequential violations of the rules. More than 26.5 million veterans’ Social Security information was put at risk when thieves stole a government computer from a VA employee’s residence. The employee was not authorized to take the computer home.

Of course, the story could easily be of much wider significance for the election. If the snooping was politically motivated, it would not be unprecedented. In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton’s passport files were breached by a Republican appointee seeking dirt on the Man from Hope. From J. Edgar Hoover to Watergate to the dueling intelligence leaks from the Bush administration and its Iraq critics, the misuse of confidential information and fishing expeditions are part of government — as is the imperative to guard against them. Realism requires the expectation that political operators will politicize confidential information. They must be stopped. The broader issues of identity theft must be addressed as well.

The State Department must show whether the guilty parties acted out of political motivation or were simply the office voyeurs. About the only solace in this story is that the “system” appears to have worked. State Department computers flagged the unauthorized access, and media coverage brought it to the attention of top management. We’re not so sure, though, that the State Department should be left to its own devices to uncover the full breadth of the problem and correct itself.

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