By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department apologizedon Friday that its workers had snooped into the passport filesof presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clintonand John McCain.
The revelation came just hours after U.S. Secretary ofState Condoleezza Rice said she called Obama to apologize forthe unauthorized access to his computerized passport file bythree department contract workers, two of whom were fired overthe incidents.
"I told him that I was sorry and I told him that I myselfwould be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had lookedinto my passport file and therefore, I will stay on top of itand get to the bottom of it," Rice told reporters.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reportersthat Rice "had expressed the same sentiment" to Clinton andwould when she speaks with McCain.
Democrats Obama and Clinton are locked in a heated battlefor the party's nomination to meet the presumptive Republicannominee McCain in the November 4 presidential election.
The department is investigating the actions -- whoofficials said appeared to act independently and without anypolitical motive -- and contacted the Justice Department aboutthe probe as a precaution in case any laws were broken.
The incident is an embarrassment to the Bush administrationand revived memories of the controversy that erupted in 1992after State Department officials searched former President BillClinton's passport and citizenship files when he was theDemocratic presidential candidate.
Earlier on Friday Obama received a coveted endorsement froma key Democrat, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. The two menwere expected to appear together at 9:30 a.m.local time (1630GMT) rally in Portland, Oregon, as Obama campaigns in the stateahead of its May 20 primary.
Richardson's decision is a blow to Obama's rival Clinton,who had sought his backing in part because the Hispanicpolitician could garner support among Hispanics, who could be akey voting bloc in November.
Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate,largely backed Clinton in nominating contests on "SuperTuesday," with exit polls showing her winning two-thirds of theLatino vote in several states.
"Barack Obama will be a historic and a great President, whocan bring us the change we so desperately need by bringing ustogether as a nation here at home and with our allies abroad,"Richardson, who had made his own run for the Democraticnomination, said in a statement.
While saying his "affection and admiration for HillaryClinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver,"Richardson said it was time "for Democrats to stop fightingamongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we willface against John McCain in the fall."
Richardson, 60, was Clinton's energy secretary and U.N.ambassador. A skilled negotiator and diplomat, the populargovernor has been mentioned as a possible vice presidentialcandidate or secretary of state in a Democratic administration.
He also is a superdelegate who would have a vote in thenominating contest if neither Obama nor Clinton win enoughdelegates during the primaries.
Richardson praised a speech Obama made earlier in the weekon bridging divides between blacks and whites, and extendedthat speech's message to appeal to Hispanic immigrants.
"As a Hispanic, I was particularly touched by his words. Ihave been troubled by the demonisation of immigrants --specifically Hispanics -- by too many in this country,"Richardson said.
He said Obama's speech "asked us to rise above our raciallydivided past, and to seize the opportunity to carry forward thework of many patriots of all races, who struggled and died tobring us together."
Obama gave that speech in response to a political firestormignited when news outlets called attention to sermons by theRev. Jeremiah Wright at a Chicago church that the Illinoissenator attended for two decades.
Wright, who retired recently, has railed that the September11 attacks were retribution for U.S. foreign policy, called thegovernment the source of the AIDS virus and expressed angerover what he called racist America.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg in Portland, Oregon;editing by Jackie Frank)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visitReuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online athttp:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)