WASHINGTON - Two companies that provide workers for the State Department say they fired or otherwise punished those who improperly accessed the passport records of the three major presidential candidates. The security breaches touched off demands for a congressional investigation.
"None of us wants to have a circumstance in which any American's passport file is looked at in an unauthorized way," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she offered apologies to the candidates.
Stanley Inc., based in Arlington, Va., and The Analysis Corp., or TAC, of McLean, Va., said Friday that their employees' actions were unauthorized and not consistent with company policies.
Stanley said it fired two subcontractors involved in accessing the files of Sen. Barack Obama when their actions were discovered. A separate search showed that workers also had snooped on Sens. John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
TAC said it had been notified earlier in the day that one of its contractors had acted improperly — in this case, according to the State Department, by accessing Obama's records. TAC decided to honor a State Department request to delay firing the consultant to give investigators time to conduct its investigation, the company said.
A fourth worker tapped into Clinton's records as part of a training session last summer, the State Department said, and that violation was immediately recognized and the person admonished.
"When you have not just one but a series of attempts to tap into people's personal records, that's a problem not just for me but for how our government functions," Obama told reporters while campaigning in Portland, Ore. "I expect a full and thorough investigation. It should be done in conjunction with those congressional committees that have oversight function so it's not simply an internal matter."
McCain, who is expected to win the Republican nomination, said from Paris that there should be an investigation of the new snooping as well as an apology.
Rice contacted the candidates to do just that. "I told him that I was sorry," she said of her conversation with Obama, "and I told him that I, myself, would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file. And, therefore, I will stay on top of it and get to the bottom of it."
The snooping incidents raised questions as to whether there was political motivation. The firings could make it more difficult for the State Department to force them to answer questions. Unless they agree to comply, they would have to be served with a grand jury subpoena compelling them to testify before a grand jury.
The State Department's inspector general was probing, with the Justice Department monitoring the effort.
The unauthorized digging into electronic government files on politicians recalled a 1992 case in which a Republican political appointee at the State Department was demoted for searching Bill Clinton's passport records when Clinton was running against President George H.W. Bush.
Obama's files were compromised on three occasions — Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14. By the time senior officials were made aware, the two contract employees for Stanley had been fired and a third disciplined, officials said.
Just this week, Stanley won a five-year, $570 million government contract extension to support passport services.
The department's internal computer system "flags" certain records, including those of high-profile people, to tip off supervisors when someone tries to view the records without an appropriate reason.
McCormack said an early review of the incidents points to workers' "imprudent curiosity" more than something more sinister.
But "we are not dismissive of any other possibility, and that's the reason why we have an investigation under way," he said.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the case has not yet been referred to the Justice Department for investigation, and indicated prosecutors were likely to wait until the State Department's inspector general concludes that inquiry. But Mukasey did not rule out the possibility of the Justice Department taking an independent look.
It was not clear whether the employees saw anything other than the basic personal data such as name, citizenship, age, Social Security number and place of birth, which is required when someone fills out a passport application.
The file also includes date and place of birth and address at time of application. Agency officials said the files generally would not list countries the person has traveled to.