Washington, July 4 : An internal State Department investigation has found that employees have accessed the passport information files of dozens of well-known Americans an "excessive" number of times and that the department lacks policies to prevent and detect unauthorized snooping.
In a sample of 150 names of politicians, entertainers, athletes and other high-profile citizens, the probe discovered that the files of 127 had been accessed at least once between September 2002 and March 2008, with a total of 4,148 hits, the Washington Times quotes a report by the department's inspector general, as saying.
"Although an 85 percent hit rate appears to be excessive, the department currently lacks criteria to determine whether this is actually an inordinately high rate," the report said.
Still, it is unlikely that all of those hits were authorized, Florence Fultz, managing director of Passport Services at the State Department, told reporters.
She added that her office is trying to determine which of the attempts to access the computerized files in question were improper.
So far five employees have been fired for this misdemeanor.
The inspector general's report, which was completed weeks ago but was not released until late afternoon before the long July Fourth weekend, "found many control weaknesses."
Those include "a general lack of policies, procedures, guidance and training relating to the prevention and detection of unauthorized access to passport and applicant information."
As of April, the passport system "contained records on about 192 million passports," the report said. As of May, there were 20,500 users of the Passport Information Electronic Retrieval System or PIERS. They included both government employees and contractors.
Half of those users have since been "eliminated," said Michael Kirby, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. Accounts that had been inactive for 90 days were closed, he said.