Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Privacy Act of 1974, Criminal Penalties, Verbatim

UPDATE, MARCH 25: The Justice Department, quite properly, gets involved.

ORIGINAL POST: On three separate occasions, dating back to January, employees of contractors working for the State Department accessed -- and did God knows what with -- presidential candidate Barack Obama's passport records, which ordinarily include not only information on a person's international travels but also a good deal of private personal information. It could be relatively innocent; it could be a Nixonian effort to find dirt on Obama. Yet the State Department's Inspector General, who is responsible for looking into such things, was not notified until today -- and before he was notified, and therefore before he had a chance to investigate what really happened and why, lower-level State Department employees made the determination that the employees had not violated the Privacy Act of 1974, and therefore that the matter did not need to be referred to the Attorney General's office.

That's not the sort of decision that's normally made at such a low level, especially when the person whose privacy was violated is prominent -- for instance, a sitting Senator and Presidential nominee like Obama. The cover-up, and the regularity with which it happened, and the fact that Obama's office was not told about any of the incidents until today, all suggest that it's possible -- of course not probable, nor likely, but in a town like D.C., definitely possible -- that some skulduggery is behind this.

The statute that almost certainly was violated (whether the State Department thinks so or not) is the federal Privacy Act of 1974, passed in the aftermath of Watergate, the relevant provision of which (5 United States Code section 552a(i)(1)) reads as follows:

Criminal Penalties. (1) Any officer or employee of an agency [note: also includes agency contractors and their employees], who by virtue of his employment or official position, has possession of, or access to, agency records which contain individually identifiable information the disclosure of which is prohibited by this section or by rules or regulations established thereunder, and who knowing that disclosure of the specific material is so prohibited, willfully discloses the material in any manner to any person or agency not entitled to receive it, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000. ...

(3) Any person who knowingly and willfully requests or obtains any record concerning an individual from an agency under false pretenses shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000.

Why is it so important to pursue a criminal investigation, if there is any suggestion that a violation occurred? Because, in the course of that investigation, the poor, low-level saps who actually did the deeds almost certainly will tell everything they know -- which probably is that they were merely satisfying their own prurient curiosity, but which might be that they passed the information on to someone who would much rather remain anonymous. And both Obama and the American people have the right to know definitively which one it is.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Obama is trying to elevate the level of discourse - if you study both his words and actions they are geared at honoring the ideals and intent of the country and its founders while calling out actions where these ideals are defamed or disrespected. That makes him a target, and a big one, for vitriol and invective and cynicism and suspicion of his motives. That's following in the footsteps of a man like Lincoln, another recipient of vehemence misunderstanding and disrespect for making such a stand.

Even if this stand is misunderstood by others and costs him the nomination, it will be understood in history.