The nine people who pleaded guilty to snooping into the passport files of famous celebrities and politicians such as then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were not the only workers at the State Department who peeked into confidential documents.
The Washington Times has learned that at least eleven other State Department workers also have been caught snooping into passport files. But these workers have avoided criminal charges and appear to have kept their jobs.
According to investigative memos released to The Times through an open records request, the additional 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.
For example, one State Department official in Washington accessed secret passport files more than 40 times, but faced no criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired, according to the memos, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“I wasn’t thinking at the time. It was not a smart judgment call,” another worker caught snooping told investigators.
State Department employees and contract workers came under investigation last year for snooping into the passport files of presidential candidates, including Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. The scandal went public after The Times reported about the unauthorized inspection of Mr. Obama’s files in March 2008.
Since then, nine State Department workers and contractors have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Accessing passport files outside of official government duties is a violation of the federal Privacy Act of 1974.
But the memos released to The Times show that at least 11 others were never prosecuted and have kept their jobs after being caught doing the same thing. Instead, these employees received letters of warning or admonishment from the department’s human resources office or other offices after prosecutors declined to press charges.
State Department spokesman Andrew Laine confirmed that workers given warning or admonishment letters were not fired. He added that disciplinary actions for the offense in general range from letters of warning to termination, depending on the “frequency and motivation of the misconduct.”
“The State Department considers the protection of passport records a serious matter and will pursue disciplinary action against all cases of unauthorized access,” he said.
As another precaution, he said, the department has deactivated accounts for about 15,000 users of the State Department’s electronic passport database.
The Times obtained records on the snooping through the State Department’s office of inspector general, which redacted the names of the employees who were not charged criminally.
The employees offered a host of reasons for snooping:
- Caught looking up the files of co-workers, television personalities and celebrities, one worker in Washington confessed to “just being nosy,” adding, “I do regret going into those files but never did I mean any harm to the applicant or to the department in doing so.”
- An employee in Arlington, Va., said she didn’t recall illegally accessing anyone’s files without approval and suggested that co-workers might have used her computer.
- An employee based in Mexico told investigators that an instructor at the Foreign Service Institute suggested looking up the passport files of celebrities as an exercise to become familiar with the electronic passport system. A supervisor could not recall giving such advice.
- “I didn’t know it was wrong,” another employee in Washington told investigators. “So I did it to get familiar with the system.”
In five cases, employees told investigators either that they were not told during training sessions that snooping was illegal or that instructors suggested looking up celebrities’ or family members’ names to become familiar with the electronic passport system.
Mr. Laine said the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs responded to the scandal by enacting numerous reforms, including the introduction of enhanced training and new “breach notification procedures.” He said officials also developed a training class called Passport Data Security Awareness, which has been completed by 4,500 personnel so far.
In a redacted report on the problems issued earlier this year, the inspector general’s office found “control weaknesses relating to the prevention and detection of unauthorized access to passport and applicant information.”
Last month, the nonpartisan Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit seeking the release of an unredacted report, saying few of the inspector general’s recommendations were made public. The center filed the lawsuit after making an open records request for the information.
Ginger McCall, staff counsel for the center, said the lack of disclosure makes it hard to determine the extent of the passport snooping problems within the State Department.
“If they fixed the problem, then there should be no reason to keep the report redacted,” she said.
In a separate recent report to Congress, the inspector general said investigations into passport snooping were continuing. The report said a result of the investigations is that “the department has enacted greater safeguards to protect the privacy of electronically stored passport-related information.”
To uncover the extent of the snooping, State Department investigators compiled a list of 150 high-profile individuals and looked into whether their passport files had been accessed. The study found that 127 of those files had been accessed between September 2002 and March 2008, a “hit rate” that officials said appeared excessive.
Nine individuals have pleaded guilty in connection with the passport snooping scandal; the most recent two cases involved guilty pleas or sentences this month.
Former State Department employee Karal Busch, 28, of District Heights, Md., received two years’ probation for looking up the passport files of at least 65 actors, musicians, models and others.
Debra Sue Brown, 47, of Oxon Hill, Md., pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington last week to unauthorized computer access for looking up more than 60 celebrities and their families, including actors, comedians and athletes, as well as personal friends.
Authorities said she said her sole motivation was “idle curiosity.”