Security breach forces Rice to apologise

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Security surrounding the passport records of the three presidential candidates was so lax that a contract worker was able to access those of Senator Hillary Clinton last summer during a training session. That person was admonished, but not fired, and the incident is separate from the three breaches for which the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has now had to apologise.

The State Department's admission, which has caused deep embarrassment to the Bush administration, and the firing of the three workers may not be the end of the matter. An investigation has been launched that could bring criminal charges and further political embarrassment for Ms Rice. Two of the contract employees who looked through the electronic passport files of Barack Obama, John McCain and Mrs Clinton have already been fired from their jobs and are outside the reach of the internal investigation, however.

Officials have been keen to describe the actions as snooping by curious employees. But the failure of the State Department to inform the three candidates until months after the first security breach has put Ms Rice on the defensive. She spent much of Friday apologising to the three candidates.

Speaking of her conversation with Mr Obama, whose files were first peered at in January after he unexpectedly won the Iowa caucuses, Ms Rice said: "I told him that I was sorry, and I told him that I myself would be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had looked into my passport file."

Senator Obama called for the passport situation "to be investigated diligently and openly". "One of the things that the American people count on in their interactions with any level of government is that if they have to disclose personal information, that is going to stay personal and stay private," he said. "And when you have not just one, but a series of attempts to tap into people's personal records, that's a problem, not just for me, but for how our government is functioning."

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