The breaches, which occurred on January 9, February 21 and March 14 of 2008, were done by two “low level” contractors and another in a mid-level position with no management role. Then- State Department spokesman Sean McCormack admitted that officials only became aware of the incidents on the afternoon of March 20.
According to a CNN report of the incident, “a State Department source said passport files contain scanned images of passport applications, birth date and basic biographical information, records of passport renewal, and possibly citizenship information.”
It was shortly after this security breach that Internet rumors that questioned the “natural born” status of Barack Obama began circulating.
An investigation of the incidents revealed that all three major presidential candidates – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain – had their passport files compromised. In addition to the the contractual employees, the investigation revealed that a State Department employee had also looked at Mrs. Clinton’s file. That individual, a passport office trainee who inadvertently breached Mrs. Clinton’s file during a training session, was “immediately admonished, and it didn’t happen again,” said McCormack.
At the time, McCormick said the breaches seemed to be “impudent curiosity” among the contract workers, who were not connected. Despite a very vocal call for a full investigation of the breaches by all three presidential campaigns, the incident was quickly forgotten.
News of the security breaches prompted a statement from then-Senator Joseph Biden, who had not yet been chosen as Obama’s running mate. Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had oversight of the Foreign Service and the passport office.
“I am deeply troubled that State Department contract employees sought access to Sen. Barack Obama’s passport files,” the statement from Biden read. “Firing or disciplining those responsible is an important first step. But we need to understand why these employees had access to this information in the first place, why they sought the information, and why it took over two months for this matter to come to light. I urge the Secretary of State to promptly refer this matter to the State Department Inspector General for investigation.”
The Washington Times reported on March 22 that the two low-level contractors who were fired worked for Stanley Inc., a 3,500-person technology firm based in Arlington that had just won a US $570 million contract to continue providing passport services to the State Department.
Although dismissed as “low-level” employees, The New York Times reports Stanley Inc. prides itself on extensive background checks for its workers. Approximately 53% of its employees have security or top secret security clearances, which means their employees didn’t just “walk in off the street and are now curious about Senator Obama’s files.”
A third contractual employee working for The Analysis Corp. (TAC), a McLean-based information firm that has helped the State Department automate the Terrorist Watchlist over the last several years, was reprimanded. TAC is headed by Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence adviser, John O. Brennan, which has earned millions of dollars providing intelligence-related consulting services to federal agencies and private companies. Brennan is also a former CIA agent.
“This individual’s actions were taken without the knowledge or direction of anyone at TAC and are wholly inconsistent with our professional and ethical standards,” the company wrote in a press statement at the time.
Newsmax tied the security breach to the Natural Born Citizen issue back in January 2009:
Sources who tracked the investigation tell Newsmax that the main target of the breach was the Obama passport file, and that the contractor accessed the file in order to “cauterize” the records of potentially embarrassing information.
“They looked at the McCain and Clinton files as well to create confusion,” one knowledgeable source told Newsmax. “But this was basically an attempt to cauterize the Obama file.”
At the time of the breach, Brennan was working as an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign.
On March 22, 2008, The Washington Times reported the investigation, lead by Acting Inspector General William E. Todd and the chief IG branch investigator, James B. Burch, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, focused on the mid-level employee of The Analysis Corp. who was not terminated. The employee inadvertently triggered alarms that finally alerted State Department officials after he looked into the passport files of both McCain and Obama.
On April 5, 2008, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Ann Barrett resigned from her post after a credit card scheme using US passport date was uncovered by the security probe. State Department Spokesman Tom Casey told The Washington Times that 24-year-old Lieutenant Quarles Harris Jr. told federal authorities he obtained “passport information from a co-conspirator who works for the U.S. Department of State.”
The investigation began after Metropolitan Police on March 25 pulled over Mr. Harris in Southeast on suspicion that the windows of his vehicle were tinted too darkly.
After searching Mr. Harris and his vehicle, police found marijuana and 21 credit cards that were not issued in his name or the name of a female passenger with him. Police also found eight printouts of State Department passport applications, and four of the names on the applications matched four of the credit cards.
Upon questioning by agents from the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Postal Service and State Department, Mr. Harris “admitted he obtained the passport information” from a State Department employee, court documents say.
Mr. Harris also said the fraud ring submitted credit-card applications using the names and “identifying information” of the persons listed on the passport applications, and that a postal service employee then would intercept the cards before they were delivered to the appropriate residences.
Then, on April 17, 2008, Lt. Harris was found fatally shot dead slumped over the steering wheel of his car in front of the Judah House Praise Baptist Church in Northeast DC. The Washington Times reported that Lt. Harris was a key witness cooperating with the federal probe into the State Department security breach. Lt. Harris’ mother, Cleopatra Harris, told ABC affiliate WJLA-TV that she believed her son’s murder may have been due to his role in the federal investigation.
“Yes I do. I think it had a hell of a lot to do with it,” Mrs. Harris said. “[The story] made my son appear to be a snitch.”
The incident was reminiscent of a breach of Bill Clinton’s passport information during the 1992 presidential campaign, when an FBI investigation was launched after the State Department reported that someone had ripped out pages from his passport file from the late 1960s and ’70s.
The department concluded that a search of Clinton’s passport records was an attempt to influence the presidential election, reportedly by trying to show that Clinton tried to seek citizenship in another country to avoid the draft.
Then-State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk found no evidence the White House ordered department staffers to dig for political dirt in Clinton’s passport files. However, Funk said the White House probably knew it was happening.