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US discloses spying key passport files

Officials acknowledge that State Dept staff rummaged through the passport files of all 3 presidential hopefuls.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2008 01:45 IST

State Department workers improperly rummaged through the passport files of all three presidential candidates, officials acknowledged on Friday.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had already apologized to Democratic senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Department officials also were to be in touch later in the day with the office of Republican Senator John McCain, who was traveling, spokesman Sean McCormack said.

In Paris, McCain said any breach of passport privacy deserves an apology and a "full investigation." News surfaced Thursday night that three department contract employees accessed Obama's file separately earlier this year. In a statement from her Senate office, Clinton said she had been contacted by Rice and McCormack said the secretary had apologized to her. Her file was accessed in 2007. He said a retired Secret Service agent had been assigned to investigate the incidents.

It was unclear whether the incidents were politically motivated. But they dominated US news at the start of a quiet holiday weekend and could be a welcome diversion for the Obama campaign after a week of political battering over remarks by the candidate's longtime pastor.

At the same time, it threatened to detract from news that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had endorsed Obama, who is battling to refocus attention away from the uproar over incendiary remarks by Reverent Jeremiah Wright.

Rice, the top US diplomat, said she spoke with Obama, telling him she was sorry. The secretary said she acknowledged she "would be very disturbed" had it happened to her.

Two State Department contract workers were dismissed for getting into Obama's file on separate occasions - January 9 and February 21. A third worker was disciplined for accessing the file on March 14. McCormack said the third, disciplined worker had also gotten into McCain's file.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton called the incident "an outrageous breach of security and privacy." Perhaps more relevant to Obama's campaign fortunes, however, was the endorsement by Richardson, a Democratic superdelegate and former presidential candidate, who served former President Bill Clinton as UN ambassador and energy secretary.

Richardson's backing of Obama, who aspires to become America's first African American president, stands as a major boost, perhaps most importantly among the governor's fellow Hispanics, America's largest ethnic bloc, which has largely backed Clinton. "I believe he (Obama) is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime leader that can bring our nation together and restore America's moral leadership in the world," Richardson said in a statement. "As a presidential candidate, I know full well Sen. Obama's unique moral ability to inspire the American people to confront our urgent challenges at home and abroad in a spirit of bipartisanship and reconciliation." The Clinton campaign was dismissive.

Citing Clinton's victory in New Mexico in February, senior strategist Mark Penn told reporters Friday, "Perhaps the time when he could have been most effective has long since past." Penn added that he didn't think it was a "significant endorsement." Whether intentionally timed or not, the Richardson endorsement came as Obama needed the boost after the widely circulated inflammatory snippets of sermons that showed Wright, the Obama pastor, claiming the United States had brought the Sept. 11 attacks on itself and inveighing God to damn America for racial bigotry. While condemning the remarks, Obama refused, in a major speech on race this week, to "disown" Wright, who married the candidate and his wife and baptized their children.

The Clinton campaign has, meanwhile, criticized Obama's organization for "peddling photos" of former President Bill Clinton and Wright shaking hands at a White House prayer breakfast in 1998.

The New York Times posted the photo to its Web site on Thursday and said it was provided by the Obama campaign. The endorsement by Richardson, who dropped out of the Democratic race in January, was relentlessly wooed by Obama and Clinton. Bill Clinton even went to Richardson's New Mexico home in January to watch America's premier television sporting event, the football Super Bowl.

As a Democratic superdelegate, Richardson has a key role in the tight race for nominating votes and could bring other superdelegates to Obama's side. He also has been mentioned as a potential running mate for either candidate.

Obama leads Clinton among delegates whose votes were determined by primaries or caucuses, 1,406 to 1,249. But neither is on track to win enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination, 2,024 are needed, so the outcome could be decided by superdelegates, elected and party officials who can choose whomever they like. Including Richardson, Clinton leads 250-215 among superdelegates who have announced a choice. About 40 per cent of the superdelegates have not declared.

The furor over Wright's sermons coincided with a marked downturn of support for Obama according the Gallup poll.
Last week, the national poll had him leading Clinton 50 per cent to 44 per cent in a survey conducted March 11-13, but Clinton has since taken over the lead. Gallup now shows Clinton ahead of Obama 48 per cent to 43 per cent, according to voters questioned from March 17-19, at the height of the pastor controversy.