WASHINGTON – An internal State Department investigative report suggests that employees may have been snooping on the passport records of celebrities far more than previously disclosed. It urges new steps to secure the files.
A report from the department's inspector general released Thursday said a survey of the records of 150 notable politicians, athletes and entertainers found that 127 of them, or 85 percent, had been accessed 4,148 times between September 2002 and March 2008.
Of the 150 files, nine had been viewed more than 101 times, according to the report. Thirty-three others had been viewed more than 26 times, and 85 files had been looked at at least once, it said.
The report did not say if the files had been viewed for legitimate reasons, but it noted that the number "appears to be excessive." It added that it could not yet determine if the 85 percent "hit rate" was "inordinately high."
However, officials said the number of times that some files were viewed was highly suspicious and probably a sign of inappropriate peeking at the records, which contain names, Social Security numbers and passport numbers.
They said that an investigation is under way to determine if any wrongdoing occurred and that any employees found to have violated privacy policies would be disciplined.
"We are reviewing the circumstances under which people looked at these records and we will take action," said Michael Kirby, a senior official with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which handles passports. "If it's inappropriate access, we will take appropriate measures."
Five contract passport workers have already been fired for their role in snooping at the passports of presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Breaches of their records became public in March and prompted the investigation.
Shortly afterward, officials told The Associated Press that a preliminary review had found that State Department workers viewed passport records for high-profile Americans, including the late Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith, at least 20 times since January 2007.
Although Thursday's report does not conclude that any files had been improperly viewed or any laws broken, it said investigators found numerous problems in the system that is supposed to protect the confidentiality of passport records.
The inspector general "found many control weaknesses, including a general lack of policies, procedures, guidance and training relating to the prevention and detection of unauthorized access to passport and applicant information and the subsequent response and disciplinary processes when a potential unauthorized access is substantiated," it said.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the report "deeply disturbing" and urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ensure that the deficiencies are corrected.
"This is unacceptable," Biden said in a statement. "The report makes it clear that the private information of over 100 million Americans is vulnerable to unauthorized access. I urge Secretary Rice to act promptly on the inspector general's recommendations and correct these systemwide failures."
The report calls for 22 specific actions to improve safeguards. All but three have been accepted, including random audits of all passport files, boosting the number of full-time passport record monitors from two to eight, cutting by half the number of people authorized to view the records and improving privacy training for employees.
The department has also made substantial additions to its list of "flagged files," or files of people that get extra protection because of their notoriety. That list had in the past included as many as 500 names, but at the time of the March breaches contained only 38. It now has more than 1,000 names, officials said.
The heavily redacted 104-page report does not name the people included on the list of 150 notables whose records were selected for the survey.
However, it said the investigators drew people "whose occupations or achievements made them newsworthy." Those included politicians; movie, television, and media personalities; musicians; athletes and people in the news.
The names also included celebrities who appeared on Google's 2007 and 2006 lists of most searched names, lists of the top 100 celebrities and 400 richest Americans published by Forbes Magazine, 10 Most Powerful American Women as named by MSN Encarta and Sports Illustrated's "The Fortunate 50" highest paid athletes in 2007, the report says.
The State Department maintains passport records for about 127 million Americans.