Watergate II?

Or just "imprudent curiosity"?

State Department! Personal records! Breach! It all has the Whiff of Conspiracy, the tangy odor of Watergate-all-over-again. Mmmm…can’t you just smell the Scandal?

Here’s the story: on three separate occasions, between January 9 and March 14, Barack Obama’s passport file at the State Department was breached by three different low-level contractors. State, which has since fired two of the offenders and disciplined a third, says each was a case of “imprudent curiosity.” Others aren’t so sure. (“We are not being dismissive of any other possibility,” a State Department representative said last night, keeping open the door to Conspiracy.)

The item, like a jolt of caffeine after a soporifically slow news day, made big headlines last night. The Huffington Post gave it a banner headline, as did Drudge.
The cable networks picked up the story. MSNBC ran “special coverage” of the breach. Dan Abrams, on his new-and-supposedly-improved show, Verdict, considered the breach’s legal implications (still kinda unclear at this point, but, still, “this is really an amazing story,” Abrams assured us). Keith Olbermann ran a special edition of Countdown, giving the breach top billing and promising “full coverage of all angles of this developing story this hour.”

But what was the story, exactly? From what we knew last night, it was that some low-level hires at State sneaked a peak into Obama’s files. (Passport applications contain such information as an applicant’s citizenship, age, Social Security number, and place of birth.) Which is, you know—riveting. There certainly may be more to the story, of course—this could turn out to be, if not Watergate Redux, then at least a case of someone getting caught with their hand in the oppo cookie jar. But right now, as far as we know, there isn’t.

Which didn’t stop the coverage, last night, from implying Conspiracy through Conjecture. MSNBC kept its “Breaking News!” chryon pretty much permanently displayed throughout its evening broadcasts. Andrea Mitchell, one ear on the phone—she was listening to the conference call State was running as she talked with Dan Abrams—explained why the passport story deserved the fanfare she and her colleagues were giving it:

Well, it just seems as though they wanted to brush it off and say that it was not a big deal, and then they got just, you know, all of these questions from all of us. Then I think they realized it was a big deal. This involved the front-runner for the democratic nomination, a sitting U.S. senator. I mean, the privacy invasion raises questions of legality and possible illegal acts by these contractors, and to just brush it off is not something that can be done by this administration or any other administration.

Which would be fine, were it left at that. But then we got suggestions—though no real evidence—of Political Conspiracy. We got Keith Olbermann telling us about the “cover-up.” We got CNN suggestively informing us, in a headline, that “someone snooped in Obama’s passport file.” We got the HuffPo’s Steven Brant, channeling Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, declaring of the breach, “We Must Learn the Truth.” We got another HuffPoster, Joseph Palermo, asking, “Condi Rice’s State Department Spies on Barack Obama?” Today’s morning shows provided blanket coverage of Passport- (and-maybe-another-Water-)gate.

Today’s revelation that Hillary Clinton and John McCain also had their passport records breached (“Clinton, McCain Join Obama’s Breached Passport Party,” Wonkette had it) may suggest that something more sinister than the claimed “imprudent curiosity” has been afoot in Condiland. But still. In all the Bigness of last night’s coverage, in all the dramatic Breaking News-ness of it all, many outlets seemed to lose sight of the story’s current point: that something’s rotten in the state of…well, State. Olbermann might have captured it best:

At a minimum it looks like just, again, the proverbial story that there may be absolutely nothing at the core of this. But it’s always the cover-up that gets you.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.