WASHINGTON -- The passport files of all three major presidential candidates were improperly examined, and the incidents are being investigated, the State Department confirmed yesterday.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Hillary Clinton of New York learned yesterday that their files had been breached.
The department had disclosed Thursday night that three of its contractors had snooped through Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's passport file on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14.
Two of the contractors were fired and the other suspended, the department said. It declined to identify them. It said an internal monitoring system had identified the breaches. The State Department will examine the contractors' political backgrounds as part of its investigation.
Two of the contractors worked for Stanley Inc., according to the State Department. Stanley is a large government contractor with more than 3,500 employees and more than $284 million in revenue in 2007. It was founded in 1966 and works with more than 40 federal agencies. Its biggest customer is the Defense Department.
Its chairman, Phil Nolan, has donated to moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia.
A company vice president with responsibility for passport operations, Eric Wolking, contributed $500 to Fred Thompson's presidential campaign last summer. He had no comment on that.
The company announced this week that it had been awarded a five-year, $570 million contract to support the State Department's passport work.
The incidents came to light at a time when the federal government is making it easier for other agencies to review passport files in the name of national security. That means thousands of other employees and contractors could have access to the private information of millions of Americans.
McCain's file was breached by one of the same contractors who invaded Obama's file earlier this year. Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said he didn't know when the McCain incident occurred. That contractor hasn't been fired.
"We're reviewing our options with respect to that person and his employment status," McCormack said.
Clinton's files were breached last summer by a State Department employee during a classroom training session. Trainees are told to type in their own names or those of family members, but in this case, the trainee entered Clinton's name.
"It was immediately recognized, they were admonished and it didn't happen again," McCormack said. He called the trainee's decision to enter Clinton's name "inexplicable."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apologized personally to Obama and Clinton and was trying to reach McCain, who is in Paris.
"I told [Obama] that I was sorry, and I told him that I, myself, would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file," Rice told reporters in Brazil. "And therefore I will stay on top of it and get to the bottom of it."
Passport files contain, at a minimum, the personal information that Americans provide on their passport applications, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth and full names. The data could be a rich mine for identity thieves.
McCormack said he didn't know what other information could be in passport files.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, the records do not "maintain evidence of travel, such as entrance/exit stamps, visas or residence permits, since this information is entered into the passport book after it is issued," according to a Jan. 9 notice in the Federal Register.
All three campaigns called for investigations into the lapses.
Aides to McCain and Obama said they were chiefly concerned about the loss of privacy, both for the senators but also for the millions of Americans who aren't famous whose personal information could be accessed without authorization.
As for expanding the range of people with access to passport files, according to the Jan. 9 Federal Register notice, the State Department planned to extend "routine use" of passport files to the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Justice, foreign governments and Interpol. The new procedure was to allow a catch-all category of "federal, state, local or other agencies" access to the records in some circumstances.
The file-sharing will help in counterterrorism and border-security efforts, according to the notice. The change was set to go into effect in mid-February, but a State Department spokeswoman said yesterday that it was unclear if it had yet.
In announcing the new policy, the State Department assured the public that it "believes the system offers suitable rigorous protection of privacy."
But privacy advocates are concerned that the plan will gut the Privacy Act, which is intended to protect citizens from a prying government.
"It's bad enough that curiosity tempts people to look because they're bored at work," said Tim Sparapani, the senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Sometimes people with nefarious purposes who work in government will use the information collected about us against us."