By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Contract workers for the U.S. StateDepartment improperly viewed Democratic presidential candidateSen. Barack Obama's passport records three times this year inwhat his campaign called "an outrageous breach" of his privacy.
The State Department said its initial assessment was thatthree workers in separate offices looked at the records out of"imprudent curiosity" rather than any political motivation butthat it had requested an investigation into the matter.
The incidents, which occurred on January 9, February 21 andMarch 14, were quickly reported to lower-level State Departmentofficials but only came to the notice of its senior managementwhen a reporter e-mailed spokesman Sean McCormack on Thursday.
Two of the three contract workers were fired as soon as theunauthorized viewing of Obama's files was discovered, while thethird has been disciplined but still works for a contractor whohas business with the State Department.
"At this point in time, it's our initial view that this wasimprudent curiosity on the part of these three, separateindividuals," McCormack told reporters in a hastily arrangedconference call on Thursday night.
"This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, evenfrom an administration that has shown little regard for eitherover the last eight years," said Obama campaign spokesman BillBurton. "Our government's duty is to protect the privateinformation of the American people, not use it for politicalpurposes."
"We demand to know who looked at Senator Obama's passportfile, for what purpose and why it took so long for them toreveal this security breach," the Obama spokesman added.
Obama learned of the incidents on Thursday on a planebetween campaign stops in West Virginia and Oregon. His staffwill get a more detailed briefing on Friday from Undersecretaryof State Pat Kennedy.
Word of the passport breach came as Obama, who would beAmerica's first black president, was trying to rebound after arocky patch. The Illinois senator delivered a major speech thisweek on race relations in an effort to explain his relationshipwith his controversial longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev.Jeremiah Wright.
The latest Gallup survey showed Obama trailing rivalHillary Clinton by 49 percent to 42 percent among Democrats inthe contest to select the Democratic nominee to face RepublicanSen. John McCain in the November 4 election.
A spokesman for Clinton, a New York senator, said of thesecurity breach, "If it's true, it's reprehensible, and theBush administration has a responsibility to get to the bottomof it."
A political firestorm erupted in 1992 after StateDepartment officials searched Democratic presidential candidateBill Clinton's passport and citizenship files. The searchcoincided with Republican attacks on Clinton for his role inthe Vietnam anti-war movement as a student at Oxford Universityin 1969 and for a trip to Moscow he made at the same time.
An investigation found no laws were violated but thatofficials exercised poor judgment.
Speaking to reporters, U.S. officials said they had askedthe State Department's inspector general to conduct anindependent investigation of how and why Obama's records wereaccessed and what, if anything, was done with the information.
"We are now checking to make sure exactly what informationwas in the files that were accessed," Kennedy told reporters,saying it would typically include passport applications.
Applicants must provide such sensitive information as asocial security number, date of birth, address and telephonenumber as well as their parents' names and places of birth whenthey apply for a passport.
The officials said that when a prominent person's passportrecords are accessed, it triggers an alarm in the computersystem and the person who viewed them is questioned to see ifthere was a legitimate reason for looking at the file.
Despite her lead in the latest poll, Clinton trails Obamain the state-by-state contest for delegates that began inJanuary. The nominees are formally chosen by delegates at theparties' conventions in the summer.
Clinton had hoped to try to chip away at Obama's delegatelead with a rerun of Michigan's contested Democraticpresidential primary. But a Clinton-backed "do-over" proposaleffectively died in the Michigan Legislature when lawmakersadjourned on Thursday without considering the plan.
Obama opposed rerunning the Michigan primary. The Michiganand Florida Democratic primaries were invalidated because bothstates ignored party directives and held their ballotingearlier than allowed.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, JoAnne Allen, Jeff Mason,Patsy Wilson and Matthew Bigg; Editing by Peter Cooney)