Much Ado About Nosing

There was a hefty kerfuffle last week when it came out that some State Department contractors had been snooping around in Barack Obama’s passport records. The accusations of political dirty tricks started flying fast and furious.

Then it came out that Hillary Clinton’s passport records, too, had been poked into. That intensified things; was this the hand of Karl Rove, reaching from beyond the political grave, to bring down his enemies?

Then it turns out that John McCain’s passport records were also pawed over. There, we scored a trifecta.

My first response was “SWF?”

Back in 1990, my then-girlriend got a temp job with the Census Bureau. She boasted that she had seen the census forms for some very prominent New Hampshire figures.

“Really?” I asked her.

“Yup. And I’m not going to tell you a single thing that was on them.”

(She was that way at times. Most times, now that I think about it. Could be part of the reason I refer to her as “my then girlfriend.”)

Curiosity is an incredibly human trait. Who among us hasn’t Googled ourselves or a long-lost acquaintance or loved one? Gone through The Smoking Gun web site and reveled in the travails of the famous (and the stupid, for that matter)? We have whole magazines, TV shows, and web sites dedicated to finding out every single detail about the rich and famous. (Of course, we here at Wizbang are above that sort of thing.)

Here’s my theory on what happened, based no more on the few details that have come out and my own understanding of human nature:

A couple of contractors for the State Department discovered that their clearances for their assignments gave them access to a bit more data than they strictly needed to see. Out of curiosity, they started poking around and looking for info on famous people. This being the Washington area and they working for the government, they chose political celebrities — the three leading candidates for president, and wanted to see if they could access their records. To their suprise, they did.

Then they got caught. Two were fired, the third was given some vague less-than-firing “discipline.”

What they did was wrong, was stupid, and I wouldn’t mind in the least if they were all fired and their employer was banned from working for the State Department for a while. But I sincerely doubt this was some grand conspiracy.

For one, all three candidates’ records were accessed. This could be a blind, to protect whose candidacy was being pushed and who was the real target, but the simplest explanation is that it was plain old-fashioned nosiness.

For another, I have a hard time believing that the Bush administration was behind it. Remember the lessons of Watergate — the burglars were NOT hung out to dry, they were told that their silence would buy security for them and their families. In this case, the ‘burglars” — the snoopers — were hung out to dry. They have no reason in the world to protect their masters, and indeed a great deal to gain by ratting them out.

For a third, I have to wonder what sort of potential dirt would turn up in a passport record. I don’t happen to have one, but from what I understand, all that would be revealed in a passport record is a bunch of personally identifying information and records of when and where the passport holder crossed international borders. The first half is great if you’re looking to commit identity theft; the latter if you’re trying to establish a criminal conspiracy. But for plain old political dirt, there have to be better sources of information.

Especially in Hillary Clinton’s case. She’s been a public figure on the federal level for almost 16 years; her travels are public record, and thoroughly documented (if not always publicly accessible, as we’ve seen recently.)

Fourth, if you’re trying to establish ties between a candidate and some international conspiracy, wouldn’t the conspirators be a little more cunning than to have the candidate travel openly, under their own passport? To me, any decent conspiracy big enough to rope in a United States Senator ought to have the resources to either fake up a passport or smuggle the conspirators into and out of countries without having to trouble with Customs.

However, the most troubling aspect of this story is getting remarkably little play. Two of the leading candidates want to make the federal government intimately involved in the health care of every single American. Who knows how many government bureaucrats (or independent contractors, as in this case) will have access to our medical records once that goes through? Toss in one of those candidates’ prior-demonstrated attitude towards confidential government documents, and it’s a very troubling thought.

“Mr. Tea, we’d like to discuss some of those articles you’ve been writing of late. By the way, how’s that halitosis problem going? And we see you’ve not refilled your fungus cream in a few months — that cleared up all right?”

This most likely boils down to a simple case of the “forbidden fruit syndrome” — they were told to not go snooping around, and were curious just how far they could snoop without getting caught. Then they were caught and disciplined, publicly enough to remind others to not go snooping.

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