KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Breaking news at this hour: Sources at the campaign of Senator Barack Obama confirming there has been some sort of security violation involving unauthorized access to the personal passport file belonging to Senator Obama.
Details are still sketchy at this hour, but the Obama campaign is expected to issue a statement within moments. And we will bring it to you here as soon as we have it.
(voice over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
Reverent Wright unexpectedly hurts Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Reverend Wright unexpectedly hurts John McCain’s campaign. Two Wrights do make a wrong.
The Democratic doomsday strategy: Senator Clinton refusing to deny reports that her advisers have been telling superdelegates that Jeremiah Wright makes Barack Obama unelectable.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, my campaign has been making the case that I am the most electable, that I have said that for a year or more. I believe I am the person best able to meet the challenges that our country faces as commander in chief.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: ABC News says she was then asked again if her campaign specifically using Jeremiah Wright, says the senator shrugged and did not answer.
And the McCain campaign and the pastor: It distributed a racist video tying Wright and Obama and Obama’s wife Malcolm X and the wearing of American flag pins. The McCain staffer involved suspended, but not fired.
And: Guess who didn’t like Obama’s speech?
Even the part in which he said it would be wrong to:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: “To equate what I said with what this racist bigot has said from the pulpit is unbelievable,” says Geraldine Ferraro, today.
And the McCain corrections of the day: All extremists are al Qaeda. No, it wasn’t a lie or conflation, just a slip up, the four times he said it this week.
Oh, and the time he said it on February 28th?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Al Qaeda is there, they are functioning. They are supported in many ways by the Iranians.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: All right. Play the standard “old man yells at cloud” correction tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)(END VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: I’m sorry the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda.
OLBERMANN: Now, a new one from Israel about the Jewish holiday, Purim.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, (I) CONNECTICUT: It’s my fault that I said to Senator McCain that this is the Israeli version of Halloween. It is of a sense that the kids dress up.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: All that and more: Now on COUNTDOWN.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: Of Halloween here.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN (on camera): Good evening, this is Thursday, March 20th, 229 days until the 2008 presidential election.
Again, we are waiting a statement from the campaign of Senator Barack Obama after an Internet report tonight that the personal passport file of Senator Obama has been in some way compromised. Details are still sketchy, but the Obama campaign is to make a statement about that report and an investigation of it within moments. We will bring it to you as soon as we have it from them.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: Not unauthorized access but unexpected interest. The two other presidential campaigns surprisingly today, invoking the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright and that involves them playing grab ass with at least one third rail of American politics.
Senator McCain on his way from his fact-finding trip to the Middle East, stopping in London for a fundraising luncheon, his campaign announcing that it has suspended a staff member in its political department for circulating a video that splices together clips from Reverend Wright’s most controversial sermons with Senator Obama’s own comments about his former pastor with Michelle Obama’s remarks that her husbands campaign makes her proud to be, truly proud to be an American for the first time, while also linking Senator Obama to Malcolm X, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The two 1968 Olympians who raised their first in a black power salute.
The entire thing set to the public enemy song, “Fight the Power” and post it on Youtube. The McCain campaign is saying that that staffer acted in violation of the type of campaign it intends to run.
Senator Clinton meanwhile, intending to run this phase of her campaign, raising doubts about her opponents electability. And in the undue twist, legitimacy with Reverend Wright apparently invoked. Senator Clinton is taking questions, at least some questions, from reporters outside of diner in Terre Haute, Indiana, where voters will head to the polls on May 6th.
“The New York Times” reporting this morning that aides to Senator Clinton told them, in the words of the paper, quote, “They had spent recent days making the case to wavering superdelegates, that Mr. Obama’s association with Mr. Wright would doom their party in the general election.” The paper adding that, “The argument could be Mrs. Clinton’s last hope for winning this contest.”
With that as back draft, Senator Clinton welcoming an opportunity to question Senator Obama’s electability in a general election in a general sense.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: Well, my campaign has been making the case that I am the most electable, that I have said that for a year or more. I believe I am the person best able to meet the challenges that our country faces as commander in chief and to manage the economy as president. And I believe that I am the candidate best able to beat John McCain.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Before continuing with that, NBC News at this hour has confirmed that there is an investigation into a report of a security breach, not described in any other detail than that, into the personal passport file that would involve the State Department in some way of Senator Barack Obama.
To repeat: NBC News is now able to confirm that there is an investigation, at least, into this report that in some ways, Senator Obama’s personal passport file at the State Department has been in some way, compromised in terms of its security.
We’ll continue to follow that story up and we’re waiting for a statement from the Obama campaign at any moment.
In the interim, ABC News reported that in a follow up to that last comment from Senator Clinton, quote, “Clinton was then asked specifically if her campaign was pushing the Wright story. She shrugged and took the next question, ignoring the reporter.”
With the Michigan legislature having adjourned today, Senator Clinton is also pinning her hopes for the nomination on Senator Obama’s legitimacy, should the Florida and Michigan delegates not be seated.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: I do not see how two of our largest and most significant states can be disenfranchised and left out of the process of picking our nominees without raising serious questions about the legitimacy of that nominee.(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The statement is just in from Senator Obama’s campaign:
“This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy even from an administration that has shown little regard for either over the last eight years.” This is of the letterhead of Bill Burton, the press secretary of the Obama’s campaign about the violation of the Obama passport file apparently at the State Department.
To continue the quote, “Our government’s duty is to protect the private information of the American people, not use it for political purposes. This is a serious matter that merits a complete investigation and we demand to know who looked at Senator Obama’s passport file, for what purpose and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach.” Those are, again, the quotes from Obama campaign spokesman, Bill Burton.
Let’s go directly at this point to Howard Fineman, the senior Washington correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine and of course, a regular visitor with us here on MSNBC.
Howard, good evening.
HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: What do we know about this? It sounds as if that Bill Burton is assuming, we know a little bit more about it than we do. There is an apparent breach of the security of Senator Obama’s passport file and it somehow can be contributed back to the current occupants of at least, the State Department?
FINEMAN: Well, apparently so. I just got word of this a little while ago, saw that statement and got a call from somebody just shortly ago about it. My sense of it is that the administration was required, for some reason, I don’t know yet why, to inform Obama himself and his lawyers that some kind of breach had happened.
Now, the questions obviously are going to be: Who breached it and why? Whether information from his file got out, whether the Obama campaign knows about that? What aspects of his travels people were looking at?
It’s all too reminiscent for those with a long memory of the fact that the first Bush administration rummaged through Bill Clinton’s passport file back in ‘92. So, now, we have Bush Two and his administration, apparently rummaging through the passport records of yet another Democratic candidate.
OLBERMANN: There is no implication of any tampering with this file because obviously, if somebody went to that degree, that could make for all sorts of problems suggesting that a man was somewhere where he was not, if you change his records in the State Department. But there’s no implication of that, but there is an implication that somebody was looking.
And moreover, again, going through Bill Burton’s statement: Why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach? Evidently, this happened sometime in the distance. This is in the distant past. This is not a recent event.
FINEMAN: Right. Don’t forget the question of Obama’s travels has already come up both positive and negative. He’s talked on his book about traveling back to Kenya, to look at his roots. Then, you have somebody circulating a picture of him in native garb from Somalia.
So, the issue has already come up. Barack Obama is a citizen of the world. And there are many positive aspects to that. It looks like somebody within the administration was curious about what downsides they might be able to find. That’s all I can say at this point.
OLBERMANN: Here’s something we’re getting out of our reporting out of the State Department.
State Department officials are confirming to NBC News: Two contract employees of the department were terminated from their jobs. There have been firings over this. And a third individual was discipline for accessing the passport records of Senator Obama, quote, without a need to do so. These three people who had access to passport records of Senator Obama were contract employees of the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
A monitoring system, according to this source, “was tripped when an employee accessed records of a high-profile individual. When the monitoring system is tripped, we immediately seek an explanation for the record’s access. If the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified.”
The State Department uses clear contractors to design, again, quoting the source now, “build and maintain our system and clear contract employees provide support to governmental employees and several steps of passport processing include data entry, files searches, customer service and quality control.”
This is, again, the spokesman at the State Department telling NBC News, confirming that there’d been two State Department firings contract employees, people who improperly accessed the passport files of Senator Barack Obama, obviously, one of the two Democratic candidates for president.
Each time an employee logs on, he or she acknowledges the records are protected by the Privacy Act and that there only available on a “need to know” basis.
That’s what we have out of NBC News reporting out of the State Department. What did you hear in there that adds to our understanding of what the story is, Howard?
FINEMAN: Well, this was a case of curiosity overcoming the law and the question would be: What the contract employees were up to? Who they knew outside of the State Department? What contacts they might have had politically in Republican circles, one must assume, or other circles?
Let’s not just assume Republicans. Who knows (INAUDIBLE) -- key questions are going to be: Who were these fired employees? Who do they know? Who might they have talked to about what they saw? What did they see? Were they looking for something going in?
This is a huge story and it could play out in many directions in the administration, in the ranks of Republican candidates or even in the ranks of rival Democratic candidates. We just don’t know at it point. But it’s highly significant and it real puts in the shade all the other stuff we’ve been talking about for the last few days.
OLBERMANN: And now, we have a time frame for it too. We have another report out of our crack department at the State Department, the unauthorized activity occurring, involving the Obama passport information took place in January 2008. So, approximately two months ago, we don’t when in January.
But this is not something that happened last week and they apparently informed Senator Obama, or at least his campaign, based on what Bill Burton, the press secretary is just saying. Obviously, immediately, they appear to found this out, I’m inferring from reading between the lines here of what Bill Burton has said, and I’m going to quote this again in a moment. That they found out about this perhaps as late as this afternoon, that’s what this sounds like, doesn’t it?
FINEMAN: Well, that’s amazing. That sets light years in political terms. And don’t forget, in January, Obama was just on the rise as a national figure. What that means in terms of who was curious and why, we don’t know. But he was still just coming on and what were the first of the primaries and making his first political statements by getting ready to and winning the Iowa caucuses. So, he was—it’s just absolutely fascinating and beyond that, I really can’t say.
OLBERMANN: All right. Let me just recap this again for those who are joining us in progress of what we can amiably put together.
A report broke late this evening, I should say late this evening, late this evening in terms of our preparation for COUNTDOWN. It broke about 7:30 this evening, Eastern Time. That there was some kind of investigation and there had been firings and a security breach at the State Department involving unauthorized and access to the personal passport file of Senator Barack Obama.
The first confirmation of this came from sources within the Obama campaign a little bit before 8:00 o’clock Eastern tonight, and then, a statement came from press secretary, Bill Burton of the Obama campaign.
Let me read it to you again in full.
“This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy even from an administration that have shown little regard for either over the last eight years.” Pinning the blame precisely on the Bush administration for this, “Our government’s duty,” resumes the statement, “is to protect the private information of the American, not use it for political purposes.”
That gives you a hint as to what their understanding is of what happened to this, little look inside the files of the Obama file at the State Department. “This is a serious matter that merits a complete investigation and we demand to know who looked at Senator Obama’s passport file, for what purpose and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach?”
That’s Bill Burton’s statement.
We know from our reporting by NBC News at the State Department that this occurred in January of 2008. And there is an investigation going internally at the State Department right now. Two contract employees of the department have been terminated, fired from their jobs, a third individual disciplined for accessing the passport records, quote, “without a need to do so.” Three people who had access to passport records were contract employees of the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and a monitoring system was tripped when an employee accesses records of high-profile individuals and we don’t know more beyond that.
FINEMAN: Well, Keith. The other thing you immediately want to ask is: Who else in the State Department knew what? Just because these two contract players have been sacked doesn’t mean a lot of other people up the chain of command not only learned about this breach of security but may have also been curious to know what was in Barack Obama’s passport file.
So, the next round of questions is going to go, obviously, to Condi Rice and others at the State Department. What did you know and when did you know it? Were these contract players, people who were well known to you? Did they talk about what they have seen?
This is a lot of time, as I say, this is light years in political terms from January to now for this to have been rattling around within the State Department and within the administration and beyond the State Department, what did the White House know and when did they know it?
George Bush isn’t running again, but he has a lot of interest in seeing a Republican succeed him. And this goes way back to just at that the time when Obama was really coming on as a major figure, who was for the first time somebody you could think as a possible nominee of the Democratic Party and the challenger to whoever the Republicans would put up.
OLBERMANN: All right. We know now that giving these people the absolute benefit of the doubt at the State Department, let’s assume for the sake of argument, this occurred on January 31st, somewhere in there. That’s 50 days ago.
And we also know from this statement from our reporting at the State Department, that the monitoring system that alerted the State Department that somebody was looking into these files, obviously, computer files when they should not have been. When it is tripped, we immediately seek an explanation for the records accessed, if the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified.
So, we are talking about, realistically, a period of time where this just sort of hung inside at least the State Department, as you suggest, a period of time of at least 50 days, nearly two months, at minimum. If this happened earlier in January, you’re pushing three months on this now. This is extraordinary.
FINEMAN: I can’t believe, don’t know, but my hypothesis would be that it could not—there’s no way it didn’t come to the attention of the Secretary of State. The fact that Barack Obama’s passport file, records had been breached, it had to have gone all the way up to the Secretary of State.
And if it went to Condi Rice, it had to have gone all the way to the White House. And there are going to be lots of questions asked about what the chain of command up from that consular office knew and when they knew it.
FINEMAN: Not to mention what’s in the file that they were looking for.
OLBERMANN: Do we have any idea, do you have any idea, because obviously, I’m asking the question, I don’t. Do we have any idea where Consular Affairs fits into that hierarchy at the State Department? That doesn’t sound like it’s at the Secretary of State’s pay grade level.
FINEMAN: No, it doesn’t. But the Consular Affairs offices deal with embassies around the world, they deal with consular matters—American consulates all around the world. And it’s the American consulates all around the world who liaison for Americans when Americans travel abroad.
So, there may have been some contacts that the liaison officers in Consular Affairs around the world had when Obama traveled, wherever he traveled. I think, mostly, it was to Africa, I think maybe to Europe. I don’t know all the places he traveled. But all of that would be in that record and any comments by consular officials who may have dealt with him abroad would be in there as well.
And so, they would know and they might even have been reporting on what Obama was up to on those places because don’t forget, he was first an Illinois state legislator, then a United States senator. And, you know, he’s been a rising national figure now for three or four years. So, they may have been looking for whatever comments there might have been from those American officials abroad in those files.
OLBERMANN: All right, Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, stay close because I think if you can get anything more on this, obviously, we want to hear about it from you.
OLBERMANN: I’m going to switch over to David Shuster, our reporter at MSNBC in Washington who can at least walk us through being the kind of guy who knows this sort of stuff. Walk us through where the Bureau of Consular Affairs where apparently this security violation occurred in Senator Obama’s passport file. Where does that fit into that hierarchy at State?
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, in the flow chart, essentially, it falls under the Undersecretary of State for Management. He’s responsible for a lot of different bureaus and agencies, including the Office of Consular Affairs, as it’s called.
The person who is the undersecretary of state is Patrick F. Kennedy. He is a career foreign service officer, but he just took his position, he was just confirmed and took office in November of 2007. So, in other words, that just two months before the primary started.
But, again, in just a cursory look, Keith, Patrick F. Kennedy, no major controversies associated with him at the State Department other than some issues related to some to the embassy in Baghdad. But conceivably, he would be the person with direct knowledge if in fact, information flowed up to him about this effort to get Obama’s passport. He would have been the first in the chain of command overseeing this Office of Consular Affairs to have been told either about the breach or have been told about how the State Department was now going to handle it, now that this information had been received.
Again, Patrick F. Kennedy, a career foreign service officer. Not somebody with a deep political background at all, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Do we have any idea, do you have any idea of the context here that we’ve already established? If this occurred in January as our reporting at States suggests, I mean, we have a minimum span here of 50 days. The urgency of Bill Burton, Obama’s press secretary, statement tonight, suggests that they found out about this very recently, I would assume no earlier than today, maybe no earlier than tonight.
Do we have an idea of the protocol for violations of American citizens’ passport files, let alone U.S. senators’ passport files? How soon they are typically notified? Is this 60 days rapid fire response by State, is it extraordinarily slow? Do we any idea?
SHUSTER: Keith, I don’t know about the notification as far as the breach, but I can tell you that there was independent counsel investigation launched when Bill Clinton’s passport files were essentially breached back in 1991. That was one of the issues that led to a special counsel, an independent counsel investigating the administration of President George H. W. Bush to determine who was responsible? Was it contained? Was there information that was deliberately taken out and use for political purposes?
If memory serves me correctly, the independent counsel, the investigation at that time found that it was isolated and there had not been political harm done with the information against Bill Clinton. But that does underscore what Howard was talking about and that is what a sensitive and big story this is, when you have a presidential nominee as Barack Obama seems like he’s headed.
And in the midst of this, information an administration run by the other party, is essentially breached and perhaps, again, the big question is: How it was pointing out? What was done with this information? Was there any information that could be damaging to Barack Obama in the general election? And who at the State Department knew about it and once they knew about it, what did they do?
OLBERMANN: All right. David Shuster, like (ph) your job, that you want make a few phone calls, take that opportunity.
Now, Andrea Mitchell who has covered the State Department as well as long as anybody is joining us by phone from a plane in Washington.
Andrea, we have this pinned by the Obama campaign directly on the administration as an outrageous breach of security and privacy even from an administration who’d shown little regard for either over the last eight years. They start by saying this is the Bush administration’s fault? Is that conclusion a leap or is it a fair one, do you think?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it’s certainly fair to say that the Bush administration, the State Department knew about this reportedly since January and did not immediately notify the Obama campaign. So, that’s a pretty big step because they should have been immediately notified if these breach occurred, the security breach.
These contract employees were, as I understand it, hired to enter data, to work on passports in the Consular Affairs Office. So, they were not political appointees or they were not people who are in the Foreign Service or in any way part of the administration.
That said, one has to wonder well first of all, whether they were just grueling around and you know, snooping or was this more than casual? Was this opposition research from any other presidential candidates? Was it something from the administration itself going after private data on Senator Obama?
And David Shuster is actually correct that there was an investigation, I covered it back in 1992. And reached to level of a special prosecutor looking into whether the Bush administration had illegally and improperly accessed Bill Clinton’s passport data, if you recall going back to the whole question of where he has gone to Moscow as a student. Keith?
OLBERMANN: Yes. The file, Andrea, the range of what this could have been originally runs the gamut from a Watergate in like deliberate attempt to sabotage or at least to pry all the way to what you suggested that it was three guys who had access to the computer and said, let’s go find out what it says in Barack Obama’s file because we can’t find Michael Jordan’s file.
We have no idea what it was originally. But it seems to me of the top of my head hearing this story that this gap of time, which is a minimum of 50 days and could be as much closer to two and a half months. Is rather a long one for the victim of this snooping to find, is that, in your estimation, is that what’s going to be critical to this story as we move ahead covering it?
MITCHELL: Absolutely, Keith. I think that there’s no question that any individuals who have had their privacy violated this way, especially such a high-profile person, whether you’re a seating United States senator in the opposition party to say nothing of the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to be outraged, there are illegal issues here of privacy and there’s security issues.
This is a man under Secret Service protection. So, I think that the Obama campaign and Michelle and Barack Obama personally have a big grievance with people in the State Department. The minute it was discovered, it should have prompted a call, I think, to the highest levels of the State Department management, even from Secretary of State Rice personally to Barack Obama to assure him that this was being investigated.
But if you believe Bill Burton’s statement, with there’s no reason not to, the press spokesman for Barack Obama right now saying that this is the first they’re hearing of it.
OLBERMANN: How many places could this have gotten stuck in the chain of command, Andrea, I mean, just a rough estimate? Is it a couple? Is it dozens? Or with this thing could nobody at a low level have sat on this long enough so that the leaders of the State Department could have only found this out say last week. In other words, is there any chance that this sat unnoticed at the lower levels of the State for a month or more?
MITCHELL: I don’t know how because these people were fired and I just don’t understand, frankly, in any kind have heard this (INAUDIBLE) how this could not have been reported up. This is a bureaucracy. And sure, things can sit on people’s desk, but this is a pretty big deal and I can’t imagine that it wasn’t reported up.
OLBERMANN: Andrea Mitchell who’s providing extraordinary context for us on this story under extraordinary circumstances as it breaks. I’m going to thank you for the moment at least and switch back to Howard Fineman who has a little bit more when the Obama campaign found out about this. Howard?
FINEMAN: Well, I’d just talking to the people out there in Chicago, a few hours ago. It was not the campaign that was informed or indeed Obama himself directly. My understanding is that the State Department official, and I’m not sure who, and I doubt it was Condi Rice, called Obama’s Senate office to inform him on almost a kind of routine bureaucratic way that this breach has occurred.
So, as far as I know, we may learn more later. As far as I know, this was handled at an office to office level, this extraordinary thing. Now, in talking to Obama people a few points, first of all, maybe it goes without saying, but this does not involve Michelle Obama at all, it’s only Barack Obama.
And as the Obama people were pointing out to me, Obama’s passport file is a thick one. Because don’t forget, he spent a lot of his childhood in Indonesia and he traveled with his mother abroad to that part of the world. And also, don’t forget, that early in his campaign, there are all these questions about his childhood, you know, what kind of education he got, where did he studied, what kind of school that attend and so forth.
I wouldn’t doubt that his own mother was the subject of interest to these consular officials in Indonesia. So, who knows how much there is about Obama’s roots and rising in that passport file in the way it’s a key piece of biographical evidence about the citizen of the world as I called him but evidence that is his and his alone, that’s private and not meant to be looked at by other eyes without any reason.
I’m told that Obama as of now, he’s not made a statement. He hasn’t decided yet whether to make one tonight. It sounds to me like as of right now, it’s unlikely that he’ll make a statement, let the campaign speak for him for now. But I wouldn’t be surprised if by tomorrow morning, he doesn’t come out firing on this because as I mentioned, as others have pointed out, this is all too much reminiscent of what happened to Bill Clinton in 1992 with the Bush administration.
OLBERMANN: And you make it an extraordinary point about Obama’s youth and childhood and where it was spent. This is conceivably, we think of Senator Obama perhaps as a public figure since the time of his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004. Those who knew Illinois politics knew him before that into the late 90s.
But we think of him in terms of, you know, that decade in the public spotlight, large or small. This man may have had a passport from the time he was a child. This passport file probably dates back to the 70s and 60s.
FINEMAN: Yes, it does. It dates back to his childhood when he went to Indonesia as I think he was seven years old when he went with his mother. His mother was an aide worker there and an academic and an interesting person who I had contact with the embassy. I think the translation work for the embassy.
If I’m not mistaken, I’m sure that there are things, I’m guessing that there are things in the file about Obama’s family in Indonesia which would have been of interest and remain of interest probably, both to Obama’s friends and enemies. As I said, this is a lot of his life story contained in those passport files.
But as I said also, these are facts for him and him alone and for the government, not to be looked at by others without an extraordinary reason.
OLBERMANN: All right. Let me recap, Howard, so everybody who’s joining us gets the whole picture here, at least as we know it.
Senator Barack Obama’s passport file in the computers of the State Department was breached by those who do not have access to it at some point in January of this year. We don’t have a date. The result of this, according to our reporting at the State Department, two contract employees, apparently people hired to enter data—at least that was their official title—were terminated from their jobs, were fired. A third is disciplined for accessing these records without, quote, a need to do so, according to a State Department source, speaking to our reporting team in off air Washington.
Three people who had access to the passport records of the senator were contract employees of the departments Bureau of Consular Affairs, which, as you may have heard David Shuster reporting earlier this evening, is not very high up on the hierarchy at State. They got caught because, according to this source, a monitoring system was tripped when an employee accessed records of a high profile individual.
When the monitoring system is tripped, we immediately seek an explanation for the record’s access. If the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified. And again, at that point, two employees were terminated at some point thereafter, and a third one was suspended, but nobody bothered to informed the Obama campaign, Barack Obama himself, or even Obama’s Senate office until, per Howard Fineman’s reporting, as you heard just a few moments ago, the Senate office of Senator Obama was informed matter of factly by someone of State just a few hours ago.
Our first word about this came officially from the Obama campaign—unofficially from the Obama campaign a little before 8:00 this evening, and then an official statement that came out of Press Secretary Bill Burton, which certainly was not holding back by any stretch of the imagination, that “this is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an administration that’s shown little regard for either over the last eight years. Our government’s duty is to protect the private information of the American people, not use it for political purposes.”
Burton continued, “this is a serious matter that merits a complete investigation. We demand to know who looked at Senator Obama’s passport file, for what purpose and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach.”
Again, our estimate that under the best of circumstances, if the breach occurred at the very end of January, it happened 50 days ago. Meanwhile, we have this new reporting in from Washington right now: the State Department is organizing a conference call with top department officials in about 40 minutes from now. This was filed at the bottom of the hour.
We’re talking some conference call about ten after 9:00. For now, here is what they are saying: a senior State Department official insists there was no political motivation to these incidents. He says, they were low level contract employees doing administrative work, and they accessed the Obama records out of curiosity. This official does not believe any of this information was sent anywhere. The records were accessed on three different occasions by three separate individuals.
The first two were fired and the last incident is pending. Howard Fineman, we have dates for these now. January 9th was the first of three occasions, then February 21, and the most recent was March 14. That’s last Friday when this occurred. There had already been two incidents and no one told Senator Obama. We’re thinking of this in terms of three guys sitting around a computer. This appears to have been three separate events.
FINEMAN: It’s breathtaking. If I understand that reporting correctly, it sounds like the first two were fired for accessing the records, and then the third person accessed them and was reprimanded. I may have that sequence wrong, but the notion that three different people on three different occasions did that certainly makes you wonder, if no one else learned anything that those three different people learned.
Who were they? Whom did they talk to? What did they find out? What did they pass on? What did they gossip about to whom over drinks, where, with whom? What information were they seeking? To say that it wasn’t political—well, it probably wasn’t ordered by the White House political office, for sure. However people don’t just access somebody’s file. They were fascinated by and intrigued by and maybe worried about the prospects of this rising star, Barack Obama.
On January 9th, the first time someone accessed the file, Obama was rocketing to the top in Iowa and New Hampshire. The second time, he was getting ready to win a whole bunch of primaries or had just won them, as recently as a couple weeks ago. Now, in many polls still, he’s the front-runner for the Democratic nomination with the most delegates, the most popular votes, and the likely Democratic nominee. It’s just absolutely breathtaking.
As I say, the notion that Condi Rice had no idea that this was going on either speaks volumes about her management of the department or makes you wonder who knew what, when?
OLBERMANN: You can expand it a little bit, which is, if something like this can happen to Senator Obama’s passport file, what about Howard Fineman’s? What about mine? What about anybody watching us tonight, where we wouldn’t get notified at all, and somebody just deciding to look these things up. I don’t know, it’s like counting blue cars, as the song went.
Let me give you that time frame again. I’m going to switch over the Andrea Mitchell for a second. January 9th and February 21st; those incidents resulted in the firing of these contract employees at State. March 14th, the individual was disciplined and the entire incident is pending. That person could yet be fired. One would assume that precedent would suggest that person is going to be.
Let me go back to Andrea Mitchell, joining us again by phone. Now we have some time line. Does this clarify, in your mind, what may have happened here and what’s going to happen next?
MITCHELL: I think it makes it even worse, frankly, because it doesn’t indicate that anybody took this seriously enough and that Secretary Rice or anyone else notified Senator Obama or his office in any kind of a timely way. They are saying this was not politically motivated. I’ll be on that conference call. I can assure you that. But how do you ascribe motivation until there’s an investigation and one that’s independent.
There’s no way that you can assure Senator Obama, certainly, or anyone involved in this that there was no political motivation without knowing more about the people involved. Certainly, no one is going to take the State Department’s word for that.
OLBERMANN: Yes, the idea of this being presented not to the Obama campaign, not the senator personally, but in a matter of fact—per Howard Fineman’s reporting on this, a matter of fact phone call from someone in State, not obviously a named individual there, or a name individual there, but just somebody at the office leaving a message almost, this afternoon.
It sounds like, once again, the origins of this may have been, as is surprisingly frequently true in events as galling as this—the origin of it may have been innocent and stupid and moronic and testifying to the idea people have such free access to this. But this time frame, we’re now dating it back to January 9th. That’s what’s going to be the story, of how in the world this could have been kept from Senator Obama or anybody of greater importance in the State Department for more than 48 hours, let alone a period of more than two months.
MITCHELL: Exactly. I have to tell you, you know, Keith, I have been around for a long time, but this is pretty shocking. This is a presidential campaign. This is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. You’re dealing with a Republican administration and you’re dealing with the most sensitive area’s, and as Howard Fineman was correctly pointing out, you’re talking about a nominee who’s rare, in that he lived part of his childhood over seas.
Questions have been raised accurately and inaccurately about his background. There has been a lot of erroneous information on the web about him. This really does rise to a very high level of incompetence, if not political skull-duggery.
OLBERMANN: All right, the next development we know about this—or we’re expecting—is a State Department conference call that should be taking place sometime after 9:00 Eastern. For now, we’ll let Andrea Mitchell go and prepare herself to hear what’s going on with that, with our great thanks. David Shuster has done, as expected, in the interim since we talked to him last, some digging on this, and is back in front of the camera in Washington.
I’ll read the quote to sort of set you up here; “a monitoring system was tripped,” according to our reporting out of State, “when an employee accessed the records of high profile individuals. When the monitoring system is tripped, we immediately seek an explanation of the records access. If the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified.”
One has this mental picture of a bell going off somewhere? Is that anywhere near the truth?
SHUSTER: Yes. Keith, I was just speaking with the top investigator for this case when Bill Clinton’s passport was breached back in 1991, and this mechanism of triggering, an electronic triggering mechanism, was actually one of the things that came out of that Bill Clinton investigation, the investigation into George H.W. Bush’s administration, his State Department.
A couple things, Keith; first of all, I don’t have information as far as the reporting requirement. That is, this investigator is not sure if there was some sort of procedure that was set up, as far as when somebody is notified. However, the law is very clear, according to this investigator, that merely looking at this information is a violation of the Privacy Act, which is a misdemeanor. Merely disseminating information to somebody else turns it into a felony, with civil liability and possible criminal liability.
Now, the key questions that we’re going to be asking tonight, Keith, is that what’s supposed to happen is when there’s a breach, the inspector general is supposed to get involved and talk to these employees and find out, why were you doing this? Who asked you to do it, if anybody? What information did you provide to somebody that was essentially private?
The big question now at the State Department is what was the inspector general doing? Did they follow the proper procedures and ask the right questions of these people who were involved? Exactly what did these people tell the inspector general? As Andrea just pointed out, merely the State Department saying there was no political motivation—that may be fine for the State Department to say, but a lot of people tonight are going to want to know from the inspector general himself what did you do? What did you ask? How are you convinced that this was simply not a super-political breach?
The other, Keith, that is worth pointing out is that this inspector said that when it comes to the notification, when there are breaches of your passport information, the State Department has been notoriously slow, notoriously lax over the last 15 years, in terms of not only dealing with employees who are involved in this, but also in terms of notifying people who’s information has been breached and has been violated.
OLBERMANN: So, David, if these internal trigger systems, literally bells and whistles, perhaps, were the result of the special investigation into the 1991-92 investigations involving then candidate, then governor Bill Clinton, by the first Bush administration, those were the internal checks and balances. Was there anything external politically? Is there any kind of threshold for special prosecution or special investigation triggered by this,, anything external to the State?
SHUSTER: Keith, again, that’s where it now belongs to the inspector general. The inspector general at the State Department, like at every agency, is supposed to be essentially independent from the rest of the agency. It would be up to the inspector general, if he thought there was criminality, to refer that to the Justice Department and say, OK—
OLBERMANN: Let me interpret you, David. There it is right now. A senior law enforcement official telling NBC News tonight that he knows of no criminal investigation by the FBI into the unauthorized access by State Department contractors of the Obama passport records.
To continue what we’re reporting out of Washington—this is from Pete Williams, as a matter of fact. Two legal experts say the unauthorized access by itself would be, as David just pointed out, a violation of State Department administrative rules, and would constitute grounds for dismissal, but would not be a criminal violation.
It’s the Privacy Act that’s at issue, per Pete and per these experts that he’s quoting. An unauthorized access would not rise to potential criminal violation unless the information was disseminated, which could be as simple as passing it along to someone else who wasn’t authorized to see. One of Howard Fineman’s points that simply talking about this over cocktails might constitute a violation of the Privacy Act.
To continue Pete Williams’ off-air reporting from Washington, the normal course of events would be for the State Department to refer any potential criminal violation to the Justice Department, but officials say tonight they know of no such referral. And given the State Department’s explanation so far that this was mere nosiness, there would seem, at first glance, to be no grounds for criminal charges.
Again, David, that would be a kind of throw back in the face of Bill Burton, whose statement on this on behalf of the Obama campaign is the only thing we have on this officially. We demand to know who looked at Senator Obama’s passport file, for what purpose, and why it took so long for them to reveal the security breach.
In terms of criminal prosecution, there doesn’t seem to be one from Pete’s point of view, Pete Williams at Justice, who knows this stuff backwards and forwards. I’m wondering, knowing the mechanics of Washington and politics, this is an electronic invasion of a presidential campaign. We have not seen the likes of this probably since that Clinton passport check of 1991-92.
For all we know, this could eventually blow up to the levels of parts of the Watergate investigation of ‘72, ‘73, ‘74. How quickly could something move politically on this? Is this likely to be brought up in the Congress, either in the House or the Senate at any point in the immediate future, in time to make a difference for this election?
SHUSTER: The person that everybody tonight in Washington is going to be perhaps asking questions of, or at least waiting to hear from, is going to this inspector general at the State Department, whose job it is to make the call about whether to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department, to the FBI, for an investigation.
What we’re learning, based on Pete’s note and based on how the State Department in these matters work, is that, for whatever reason, the inspector general at the State Department, whose name escapes me at the moment—but the inspector general decided that this was not worth a criminal referral. He was satisfied with the interviews he did with these contract employees, that it was either innocent or they were just fishing and that they did not disseminate the information.
How he made that judgment, how that inspector general decided, OK, they got the information but they didn’t give it to anybody, over cocktails or anywhere else, that’s now the responsibility of the inspector general to explain not just to Barack Obama, but to all the reporters who are going to be on this conference call in 15 minutes.
I mean, it’s the inspector general’s decision to make. Again, the question now belongs to him: what convinced you that this was simply just fishing around and this innocent? And what steps did you take to assure yourself and to assure the State Department that this wasn’t some sort of political dirty tricks, and that this information was not disseminated.
Again, once it is disseminated, once that information is shared, it does become a possible criminal violation worthy of a referral to the Justice Department for an investigation.
OLBERMANN: Never mind being worthy to the criminal investigation out of Justice; it wasn’t apparently worthy of a phone call to Senator Obama, even though this first incident was dated January 9th.
We’ve been quoting the off-air works Pete Williams, our chief Justice correspondent. Pete is now on the phone with us too. I’d love for you to flush this out. Do you have any indication—we’ve reported what you reported already, but do you have any indication what led them to believe so quickly that this was innocent curiosity, and did not merit not just referral to Justice, but merit notifying the person whose file was snooped into.
PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS JUSTICE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: That part I can’t tell you, why they didn’t tell Senator Obama. I don’t know what the normal procedures are for doing that. Set Senator Obama aside, if your, Keith Olbermann’s, records are improperly accessed—I would be sort of surprised if the government had a procedure for telling every American when some snoop was poking into their records, because I think they would be fairly busy.
But what I’m told is that there is no criminal investigation here. One of the people I asked about the law here is Joe DiGenova, who was the independent council who investigated the Clinton passport case, and concluded that there was no criminal violations there. He and other criminal authorities agree that the test is—it’s the Privacy Act that’s implicated. The test is: was it mere snoopiness, which is not a criminal violation. It’s an administrative violation. It breaks the rules. You can be fired. You can be sanctioned.
If you pass it on to someone else, that’s where the potential criminal violation comes in. I guess everyone is satisfied, at the point we have to keep saying. We’re just getting into this tonight. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this was anything more than what one might call prurient interests, just their own nosiness, to look at his records.
We don’t know precisely how they reached that conclusion. Now to get around to finally answer your questions. We have to assume it’s based on their interviews with the people who did it. They seem to think that they were just nosey and just dying to know what famous people were doing. Apparently, one had the same birth date as Senator Obama. They thought that would be fascinating to know what someone with the same birth date, his travel records were. It’s all the wrong thing to do, but at this point, there is no indication it was passed on to anyone else, so far.
OLBERMANN: One note to David Shuster’s reporting when he was talking about not being able to pull off the top of his head the name of the inspector general at the Department of State. There’s a reason for that. This testifies to David Shuster’s various expertise. The Office of the Inspector General at the Department of State is currently vacant. There is a deputy inspector general, Mr. Todd, but there is no inspector general in office at the moment.
WILLIAMS: There’s still somebody—
OLBERMANN: There’s somebody to do it. But that’s why David couldn’t come up with the name. Let me ask you, Pete Williams, this one question that occurred to me in your explanation as to what they probably found, at least what sort of structure would have led the people in the State Department to suggest that was not worthy of a criminal referral to the Justice Department. Are there additional rules about reporting this upwards through the chain of command in State? Is there a possibility of something along that lines being a violation?
WILLIAMS: I think the way it works is—I don’t know if these systems—my guess, quite frankly, would be that these systems were put in place after the embarrassment of the Clinton unauthorized passport disclosure stuff when he was running for president the first time.
The way it’s supposed to work is it’s a computer system. There are certain people it’s looking out for, I guess, a list of famous, high profile people, and if someone improperly accesses those, a computer record is made of that. Then the supervisor of the contract employees is notified. The supervisor then says why were you doing that. If the supervisor is not satisfied—maybe I should put it this way, if the supervisor is satisfied that the reason is not a good one, not a legitimate government reason, then they begin to take steps to sanction the employee.
How high up it gets reported, I don’t know. With a candidate that’s running for president, you would assume that senior State Department people would know about this.
OLBERMANN: Especially given the time line that we now know of. The Associate Press is now quoting spokesman Sean McCormack, who will be on this State Department conference call a little after 9:00 Eastern, quoting him as saying that this was the result of imprudent curiosity by State Department employees, but he’s confirming these dates, January 9th, February 21st, and again last Friday, March 14th.
Certainly, you would think that after that second separate incident on February 21, where somebody else just happened to look in Obama’s passport file, that somebody in the State Department, even somebody at the low level of the consular agency, would have said, there’s something wrong here. We need to get at least our people at the higher levels, at the political levels of the State Department informed on this. It must have been knowledge within state within the last month. Must if have not?
WILLIAMS: You would sure assume so, but government seldom works the way it should.
OLBERMANN: Pete Williams doing some yeoman work after hours for us in Washington. We thank you greatly, Pete.
WILLIAMS: My pleasure.
OLBERMANN: Let’s recap what we have so far. The confirmation is in and there’s a conference call scheduled for sometime after 9:00 Eastern by the U.S. Department of State. Two contract employees have been fired, a third was disciplined and the case is still open. There may yet be further discipline against that individual for inappropriately looking at the passport file of Senator Barack Obama.
The spokesman for the State Department, Sean McCormack, has confirmed that there was imprudent curiosity by State Department employees and has confirmed our earlier reporting, that these were three separate incidents, on January 9th, the first one, February 22st, and March 14th.
The Obama family, the Obama Senate office and the Obama presidential campaign found out about all this today, that according to Howard Fineman’s writing and reporting. This was referred to Obama’s Senate office today by some functionary within the State Department. This was not Secretary of State Rice calling Obama or even one of the undersecretaries calling Senator Obama, and saying, yes, by the way, somebody has been looking. We think it’s pretty innocent, but it’s happened three times. We thought we had better had let you know.
Nobody said a word to him until this day. We’re reporting out of Washington that these were two contract employees. In other words, as a spokesman said, people who were hired, who had access to the passport records of Senator Obama, were contract employees of the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. They were caught when a monitoring system was tripped when an employee accessed the records of a high profile individual, in this case Senator Obama.
The monitoring system is tripped, and therefore, at that point, State immediately seeks an explanation for the records accessed. If the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified. You may have heard David Shuster reporting before that this entire sounding like a Rube Goldbergian kind of methodology for alerting when the computer records have been viewed by people who shouldn’t have viewed them, was put into place after the incident in ‘91 and ‘92 when the Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, had his passport records examined improperly within the State Department.
Again, the complaint from the Obama campaign became public a little bit before 8:00 p.m. Eastern this evening and became official in a statement from Bill Burton, the press secretary, that “this is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an administration that’s showed little regard for either over the last eight years. Our government’s duty is to protect the private information of the American people, not use it for political purposes. This is a serious matter that merits a complete investigation. We demand to know who looked at Senator Obama’s passport file, for what purpose, and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach.”
That again Bill Burton, the press secretary to Senator Obama.
We are joined on the phone by the co-chair of the Obama campaign, Eric Holder. Mr. Holder, thanks for your time tonight.
ERIC HOLDER, OBAMA CAMPAIGN CO-CHAIR: Thanks, good to speak to you.
OLBERMANN: What can you add to this? Is this in fact true, that your candidate, the senator, did not hear anything about this until earlier this evening, late this afternoon?
HOLDER: Yes. We only heard about it today. I have to tell you, Keith, this is very disturbing. When you have—if you had one incident of somebody looking into the files, you could say, perhaps it’s just somebody snooping around inappropriately. But when you have three separate incidents, one as recently, I guess, as last week some time, I begin to wonder, as a former prosecutor, whether or not we have a pattern here.
I want to know exactly who knew about this in the State Department, who made the determination that this should not be referred to the Justice Department? I think there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered here. I’m very disturbed by this.
OLBERMANN: As we suggested, this runs the whole—the potentialities here run the whole gamut. This could be literally what it’s being described as by the State Department, which a couple of guys who have access to computer records and one of them, supposedly, had the same birth date as the senator and wanted to go look and see where he had been. It could be something as innocent as that, or it could be the wildest conspiracy that either one of us could put together.
But the real point seems to be that if the State Department is tonight confirming that the first incident occurred on January 9th, and they didn’t tell you until today, March 20, there seems to have been a long period of time. There’s a gap in there of more than 70 days. Is that what has alarmed you, as much as the fact of the stealing of the information, the looking into this private record?
HOLDER: There’s a whole host of things that I think are disturbing here. The fact that it is three separate incidents, one per month, over the course of three months, and the fact that one happened I guess over two months ago and this is the first time that somebody whose privacy has been violated, perhaps in a criminal way, is being notified about it. There’s at least, it seems to me, some administrative bungling here and perhaps, at worst, something that needs to be looked at by the Justice Department.
There’s a whole bunch of questions here that I have, as I said before, that are extremely disturbing to me.
OLBERMANN: Have you been in touch with the senator, Mr. Holder? Does he have a specific reaction to this?
HOLDER: No, I have not spoken to Senator Obama about this.
OLBERMANN: The idea, again, that this went on as long as it did and then it was—your campaign, again, let me backtrack here. Give me some sort of confirmation; how did the campaign, how did the senator and how did his office find out about this? What was—the story that we are hearing is it went State Department to—not even a major figure in the State Department, but somebody from the department to the senators Senate office in Washington. Is that correct?
HOLDER: I cannot confirm that. I have only spoken to people here very generally and that is my understanding about how the information was passed to us. I don’t know for sure though how the information was conveyed to Senator Obama or the people around Senator Obama.
OLBERMANN: What, Mr. Holder, is the next step, from your point of view?
HOLDER: I think the question—I would like to see what the State Department will say about what they have done, in terms of investigating this. I would like to hear from the person who I guess is the acting inspector general, how they made the determination that this was not something to be referred to the Justice Department, especially given the fact that when something similar happened in the early ‘90s, an independent council was actually appointed, Joe DiGenova, a very accomplished lawyer in Washington, DC, was appointed to look into that.
Given that background, and, again, this pattern that I see here, this determination relatively quickly, it seems to me, to make the decision not to refer this to the Justice Department. I’d like to have a very good explanation of why that determination was made.
OLBERMANN: I think many in the news organizations of this country would probably ask the same question and share your opinion. I’m sure you’ll be interested by a statement from Howard Wolfson from the Clinton campaign to Howard Fineman, reporting for us and obviously “Newsweek;” “if it’s true, it’s outrageous.” I think that pretty much sums it up. Does it not?
HOLDER: On this one, I can finally agree with Howard Wolfson.
OLBERMANN: Eric Holder, co-chair of the Obama campaign, giving us what he knows of this breaking situation that’s taken over the air waves for the last hour. Mr. Holder, great thanks to you.
HOLDER: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: As we approach 9:00, let me wrap up everything that we have in front of us right now. It’s a considerable amount of information. The State Department is confirming tonight that on three occasions since January, January 9th, February 21st, March 14th, last Friday, apparently non-staff employees of the State Department, contracted employees, people perhaps down as low as the level of having been hired to enter data, accessed improperly the personal passport file of Senator Barack Obama, who has had a passport since he was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, having done a considerable amount of travel at that time, as a kid, living for a while in Indonesia.
State Department confirm that two of these employees, in the incidents on January 9th and February 21st, had already been dismissed, that the third incident, which occurred only last Friday, is still under investigation. That individual has been reprimanded at this point.
All this came to light when these three people who had access to passport records of Senator Obama—were contract employees who had this access. A monitoring system was tripped when an employee accessed the records of a high-profile individual, in this case Senator Obama. The monitoring system is tripped, a monitoring system that we have again reported to you tonight was installed in 1992 after a similar incident with then Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton.
The system was tripped and the State Department immediately seeks an explanation for the records access. And if the explanation is not satisfactory, the supervisor is notified. Just how immediately seems to be the number one issue right now. The first instance of this occurred about 70 days ago, on January 9th. Then somebody else accessed Senator Obama’s record on February 21st. Then it happened again on March 14th.
Late this afternoon, per the reporting of Howard Fineman, and per Eric Holder, co-chair of the Obama campaign committee, this afternoon, Senator Obama’s office—was of his offices was informed by somebody at some lower level of the State Department. Pete Williams reporting out of Washington that State has determined that there’s no need for criminal investigation. I suspect that the Justice Department will be the only one thing in the United States that could possibly investigating this extraordinary story, that will not be investigating in the next few days.
That is a special edition of COUNTDOWN. We thank you for being with us. Good night and good luck.
Thursday, March 20, 2008