Passport Privy: Wherein I Try to Hack My Own State Department File

It was pretty obvious from the outset that some sort of clandestine conspiracy run by the Bush Administration was sneaking a peek into Barack Obama’s passport file on hand with the State Department. The whole thing reeked of 1972—a paranoid party desperately collecting secrets and deep background on leading Democratic candidates—replacing agents poking around in a young, potentially-dangerous Teddy Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick files at the Library of Congress with “trainees” snooping in a young, potentially-dangerous Barack Obama’s passport.

But then the State Department did a search for other unauthorized accesses. And lo and behold, Hillary Clinton’s file had been breached in 2007. The conspiracy was growing more vast by the moment. A single headhunting mission was now a campaign of, in polite 1970’s politicking terminology, rat fucking. The explanation Assistant Secretary of State Sean McCormack offered was that a outside contractor, trained during the past summer to handle the backlog of passport applications, opened her file. “Usually in these training circumstances, people are encouraged to enter a family member's name, just for training purposes,” McCormack said in his daily press conference. “This person chose Senator Clinton's name. It was immediately recognized, they were immediately admonished.”

“Why, when you're sitting in a classroom and somebody tells you, ‘Use your name, use your mother's name, use your father's name as part of this training exercise in order to access and work with a file,’ and they choose to enter Senator Clinton's name, it's inexplicable,” he added.

A trainee. Inexplicable. Right. Just stop at the little people. You want us to believe this wasn’t an orchestrated effort to undercut the woman who was then the Democratic front-runner for the nomination? Dubious. Just plain Dubious.

Or not.

The State Department inquiry turned up another high-profile unauthorized access. John McCain. The, um, Republican front-runner. Now I know McCain’s never been the golden child of the GOP or its ardent right, and after the bare-knuckles-with-glass-shard-gloves 2000 South Carolina primary in which McCain was variously suggested to have fathered an illegitimate “black child” (his adopted Bangladeshi daughter) and ratted out his compatriots at the Hanoi Hilton, I wouldn’t put it past one of President Bush’s inner circle to try and check up on the man. But it doesn’t quite seem Watergatian, does it? I don’t recall Haldeman breaking into Ehrlichman’s house or Nixon sticking it to Gerald Ford. What makes matters even more confusing is McCormack’s statement that one of the same people who accessed Obama’s file got into McCain’s too. Is this a pan-party attack? A rogue spy? Or just a Lone (web)Gunman?

Perhaps I’m not thinking big enough. Does some devious foreign interest (possibly al Qaeda or France) want all of the information on both standard-bearers heading into November?

Or maybe this is a new domestic threat. Interesting, isn’t it, that Ralph Nader enters the fray and all of a sudden there are a whole bunch of breaches into the files of his immediate competitors? Don’t you think for his third run at the White House he would want a little something extra in the arsenal?

But all of this conjecture begs the question—what exactly is in a passport file? Who, particularly, would benefit from this unauthorized trainee access? Moreover, exactly who might be able to get into these files?

“And I have to tell you that we take very seriously the trust that is put in us in safeguarding American citizens' personal data,” McCormack said. “There's a trust relationship there when somebody hands over a passport application or any other sort of application to the U.S. government. We take that trust very seriously. And we try to put in place sophisticated and elaborate safeguards to make sure that if people break the rules -- and we don't want to see them break the rules -- but if people break the rules, that that's detected and that we can act to punish those people. And that holds not only for notable personalities, such as presidential candidates or any other notable people in American society, but for every citizen.”

So I call the State Department to break into my own file.

“Steve Royster,” the other end answers.

“Yeah, hi, I’m trying to reach somebody in the State Department for passports or passport inquiry?”

“What’s up?”

I’m wondering if the State Department asks Gordon Brown and Kim Jong-Il what’s up.

“I was wondering if it’s possible to look at my passport and see if anybody’s, you know, looked at it,” I query. “I’m just wondering if this kind of stuff happens all the time and stuff.”

A pause.

“If you want to, submit us a written request doing that. I run into the problem of not knowing you over the phone and taking your information. Everyone’s been talking about the privacy act which forbids us from disclosing information and as a policy, from accessing it, without people’s written permission,” Mr. Royster says.

Phase one secure. You can’t break into passport files over the phone.

Mr. Royster goes on to tell me that requests can be filed through the Freedom of Information Act, which has its own set of criteria for releasing information and that often information is subject to privacy acts which forbid any release.

So I ask, hypothetically, what would be in someone’s passport file. What kind of information are we talking about here?

“For the most part,” he says, “the information on that passport application is what’s in your file. Basic biographic information—name, date of birth, address, is this your first application for a passport...” I tell him I’ve done two passport applications before and know what goes on the form, but does that info get background checked?

“Well before anyone is issued a passport their information is run against the database to make sure they’re not ineligible for some reason to receive a passport.”

Certainly legitimate. So ask what The Database is.

“Uh. I do not know what it’s called. It’s maintained by the Department of State and gets information from other agencies,” he says. “Besides obviously not being a citizen, the other grounds for not issuing a passport include, let’s see, for example, outstanding child support arrears, in some cases an outstanding criminal warrant, and that kind of information comes up in a run against the database.”

What other agencies? Law-enforcement, no doubt? Is the FBI involved?

“There are other agencies, and I’m not going which ones, that contribute, but it’s our database.”

I thank Mr. Royster for his time and he tells me he’s the spokesman for Consular Affairs. He says he’ll get back to me if he can find out any more information on what The Database and Other Agencies do when someone sends in a passport application. Now, after all this, I’d be the first to look for a conspiracy. I love The X-Files and I wouldn’t mind an All The President’s Men detailing my heroic journalistic exploits against an entire administration. This thing could spread so far and wide that we’ll never know who’s looking at what, who’s in the know about our lax child support payments, outstanding warrants, weight and eye color.

But I also have been known to search Facebook endlessly. I’ve been bored during training sessions. I know all about my family members, and if the opportunity arose with 70 million-plus files with their Walgreens $7.99 profile pictures at my disposal, I’m not about to tell you I wouldn’t look at the Hil’s home address or McCain’s real age. Maybe we are talking about a decidedly non-conspiratorial trainee here. Think of it: the ultimate indexing of people who have to tell the truth. Maybe you can know every place they’ve been. In fact, broaden that list and see if anyone’s searched for Britney (ahem, child support?), John Tesh, O.J. Simpson and Cher. See if you can cross-index for “hotties.” I’d say Woodward and Bernstein need to pull out the typewriters and get cracking on those names. Then we’ll see how deep this rabbit hole goes. - Joe Horton

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Sean Cronin