A major security breach has occurred involving Barack Obama's confidential passport details. Two State Department employees have been fired and another suspended following an investigation, which began after it was learned that his computer file had been accessed.
The security breach has echoes of other Republican dirty tricks operations. Mr Obama's confidential files were first accessed after he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus at the beginning of January.
There were three separate breaches of security detected; the most recent last Friday. "This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy," Mr Obama's spokesman Bill Burton said last night, warning the Bush administration that it had a responsibility and duty to protect private information and not use it for political purposes.
"We demand to know who opened Senator Obama's file," he said, asking why it took so long to reveal the breach. There were calls last night for an FBI investigation and the possible appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
A senior State department official said that "curious" officials opened the file and that there was no malicious political intent involved. The Democrats dismissed this explanation as improbable.
In 1991 a similar security breach occurred when Bill Clinton's passport details were improperly obtained at the time he was challenging George Bush's father for the presidency. That was accompanied by a request for assistance from Britain's Conservative government for details about Mr Clinton's time at Oxford. The security breach also has echoes of the Watergate break-in during the Nixon administration.
The controversy erupted as Mr Obama's was campaigning in West Virginia. He was not informed until earlier yesterday of the security infringement. Mr Obama has been seeking to put his campaign back on an even keel after the controversy over the racially inflammatory sermons of his pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright.
At a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday – which within 24 hours had been viewed more than 1.2 million times on the video-sharing website YouTube – he appealed above all to the media to treat race in America as more than a spectacle for the nightly news. For a moment, it seemed that commentators were listening as they grappled with what some said was the most significant speech about race by a US politician in living memory. But as the moment of reflection quickly passed, the Fox News presenter Sean Hannity said: "Folks, don't fall for this. Most of America is not going to buy this flimsy excuse. If you can't disown Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright, you're not qualified to be the President of the United States. I don't even think you're qualified to be senator."
On the other side of the spectrum, CNN's Donna Brazile called the speech "very courageous", while The Boston Globe newspaper said it was "a frank reflection on the problems of race in America that rejected [Mr Wright's] words but also drew a broader personal and historical context in which to read them".
Television broadcasts focused on Mr Obama's statement that he could "no more disown [Mr Wright] than I can disown the black community. I could no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother ... who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Mr Obama's right-wing critics immediately pounced. One –Fred Barnes – said he had "thrown his grandmother under the bus". However, most commentators were positive.
The Air America broadcaster Rachel Maddow said the senator had "brought light and not heat to a subject on which there is so much heat", adding: "I actually think the speech did call out to Americans' better angels." Howard Fineman, of Newsweek, called the speech "gutsy".
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