ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43

Passport politics: US race takes bizarre turn

WASHINGTON, Saturday, AP -- The U.S. presidential race took a bizarre turn when the State Department disclosed that workers had improperly rummaged through the passport files of all three candidates. Senator Barack Obama called for a congressional investigation.

The snooping first surfaced against Obama, the Illinois Democrat whose file was accessed three time this year. In the course of Friday, however, department officials said the contract workers with access to the files also had dipped into the private information of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the other Democratic hopeful, and Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has wrapped up his party's nomination.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who reportedly only heard of the incidents starting on Thursday, apologized to the candidates and promised her department would investigate. But Obama was not satisfied and said Congress should investigate to insure the probe was not ''simply an internal matter.''

It was unclear whether the incidents were politically motivated. But they dominated U.S news at the start of a quiet holiday weekend and were a welcome diversion for the Obama campaign after a week of political battering over incendiary remarks by the candidate's longtime pastor. The passport issue flared as Obama, locked in an increasingly nasty nomination battle with Clinton, secured a key endorsement, the backing of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Richardson served former President Bill Clinton _ candidate Clinton's husband _ as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary. ''You are a once-in-a-lifetime leader,'' Richardson said, speaking at a spirited rally in Portland, Oregon, with Obama at his side. ''Above all, you will be a president who brings this nation together.''

The passport disclosures were a major embarrassment for the State Department and viewed as a serious breach of privacy. The snooping into supposedly secure government records on politicians recalled a 1992 case in which a Republican political appointee a the State Department was demoted for searching Bill Clinton's passport records when he was running against President George H.W. Bush.

Two of the workers who breached Obama's records on Jan. 9 and Feb. 21 have been fired. A third worker, who accessed the Illinois senator's file on March 14, had only been reprimanded. It subsequently turned out that person had also looked at the McCain file earlier this year.

Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the individual no longer has access to passport records. ''I can assure you that person's going to be at the top of the list of the inspector general when they talk to people, and we are currently reviewing our (disciplinary) options with respect to that person,'' McCormack said.

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