May 26, 2024

Senate File Pilfering "Extensive"

Charlie Savage reports in today’s Boston Globe:

Republican staff members of the US Senate Judiciary Commitee infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media, Senate officials told The Globe.

From the spring of 2002 until at least April 2003, members of the GOP committee staff exploited a computer glitch that allowed them to access restricted Democratic communications without a password. Trolling through hundreds of memos, they were able to read talking points and accounts of private meetings discussing which judicial nominees Democrats would fight – and with what tactics.

We already knew there were unauthorized accesses; the news here is that they were much more extensive than had previously been revealed, and that the results of the snooping were leaked to the media on several occasions.

Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (a Republican) has strongly condemned the accesses, saying that he is “mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch.”

The accesses were possible because of a technician’s error, according to the Globe story:

A technician hired by the new judiciary chairman, Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, apparently made a mistake [in 2001] that allowed anyone to access newly created accounts on a Judiciary Committee server shared by both parties – even though the accounts were supposed to restrict access only to those with the right password.

An investigation is ongoing. It sounds like the investigators have a pretty good idea who the culprits are. Based on Sen. Hatch’s statement, it’s pretty clear that people will be fired. Criminal charges seem likely as well.

UPDATE (Friday, January 23): Today’s New York Times runs a surprisingly flat story by Neil A. Lewis. The story seems to buy the accused staffer’s lame rationalization of the accesses, and it treats the investigation, rather than the improper acts being investigated, as the main news. The headline even refers, euphemistically, to files that “went astray”. How much of this is sour grapes at being beaten to this story by the Globe?


  1. For my response to Jack Shafer’s column, and scarhill’s comment, see this posting.

  2. Was the Senate File Pilfering Criminal?

    Some people have argued that the Senate file pilfering could not have violated the law, because the files were reportedly on a shared network drive that was not password-protected. (See, for instance, Jack Shafer’s Slate article.) Assuming those facts,…

  3. For another take on this, see Jack Schafer’s column in Slate. Evidently the alleged “cracking” involved… (wait for it)

    …clicking the “My Network Places” icon in Windows.

    It sounds unethical, but hard to believe viewing totally unsecured files could be considered criminal.

  4. I’ll wait and see if anything happens. If charges are filed, my inner conspiracy theorist thinks a couple of lowly scapegoats will be hung out to dry and the folks who OKed this plan will stay right where they are.