Postal Service Improperly Divulged Spanberger’s Sensitive National Security File, and Asks for It Back

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WASHINGTON — The Postal Service said on Thursday that it “deeply regrets our mistake in inappropriately releasing” the official personnel file of Abigail Spanberger, a former C.I.A. operative now running as a Democratic candidate for Congress, and requested that a Republican-aligned super PAC return the documents.
“We take full responsibility for this unfortunate error, and we have taken immediate steps to ensure this will not happen again,” David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, said in a statement. He added, “The privacy and security of personal information is of utmost importance to the Postal Service. The Postal Service offers our sincere apology to Ms. Spanberger, and we will request the return of the information which we mistakenly disclosed.”
The Postal Service also acknowledged the possibility of additional inappropriate disclosures, but when asked, would not provide details like whether those disclosures involved other candidates for office.
“We are continuing our review, but believe the issue began in June of 2018, and that only a small number of additional requests for information from personnel files were improperly processed,” Mr. Partenheimer said.

America Rising, the Republican-aligned research group, had requested Ms. Spanberger’s file under the Freedom of Information Act. After the Postal Service released the file, the group provided it to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul D. Ryan, which then used some of the information about Ms. Spanberger’s employment history for political purposes.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Joe Pounder, the chief executive of America Rising, said, “America Rising never published her personal information and has no interest in it, so it is glad to return the documents to the Post office for their redaction.” The Congressional Leadership Fund did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Spanberger reiterated her demand that the fund stop disseminating information from the documents.
“It is my sincere hope that U.S.P.S. will provide significantly more detail as to how this major failure occurred, and that C.L.F. and America Rising will put decency and country before politics and comply with U.S.P.S.’s request that they return all documents received,” she said in a statement.
Ms. Spanberger had contended that the document was improperly obtained, a charge that both American Rising and the Congressional Leadership Fund had vigorously denied.

“The Postal Service has addressed the issue by providing clear instructions and guidance to our employees tasked with the responsibility for handling these requests, and we will follow up with additional training,” Mr. Partenheimer’s statement said. The Postal Service said it would also change how it handles and processes requests as an additional safeguard.
Mr. Partenheimer declined to say whether the Postal Service had taken any disciplinary action in the case.
Ms. Spanberger said in an interview that she discussed the matter on Thursday afternoon with top Postal Service officials, who told her that the request somehow did not go through a standard open records request, but instead went through the human resources department. That also may explain why the request was returned so quickly.
She said it was “absolutely against the law” for the Postal Service to release the document. The Postal Service, she said, was “blaming it on one particular woman who is the one responsible for this,” an answer that she said made her “incredulous.”
The records request went to the Postal Service because Ms. Spanberger had worked in the agency’s law enforcement section before working for the C.I.A. and had to fill out a similar SF-86 document.
America Rising obtained the file in an uncharacteristically rapid fashion. Ms. Spanberger said she hired an opposition research firm in December to scour her background, a common practice by candidates. The firm filed a request through the Freedom of Information Act for her personnel information from the federal government in December, she said, and has not yet received a response.
America Rising initially filed its FOIA request on July 9 to the National Records Center, which sent it to the Postal Service on July 12. The Postal Inspection Service delivered a response to America Rising on July 30.

The Congressional Leadership Fund sent a letter on Wednesday to Ms. Spanberger’s lawyer, Graham Wilson, saying that claims that the information was illegally obtained were “baseless.”
“As is its right, C.L.F. will disseminate this information through all available means so that voters can reach an informed conclusion regarding their choice at the polls on Nov. 6, 2018,” wrote Megan Newton, a lawyer for the super PAC.
Ms. Newton’s letter went on to say that the SF-86 form “states on its face that it can be release to the media and public,” then cited the release of portions of the SF-86 completed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
American Oversight, a progressive watchdog group that does freedom of information litigation, sued the Justice Department to obtain the response to a single question on Mr. Sessions’s form about his contact with Russian officials before the election, said Austin Evers, the executive director of the group. The department said it was releasing the answer to that question not under the Freedom of Information Act, he said, but with Mr. Sessions’ permission.
Ms. Spanberger said there was a clear distinction in that her entire form, including sensitive personal information such as her Social Security number, was released.
“There’s no legal way they could have gotten this fully unredacted SF-86,” Ms. Spanberger said in an interview. “And the next question, what does it mean they are actually pushing it around? What do I have to hide? Absolutely nothing.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund made an issue of Ms. Spanberger’s stint as a substitute teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., when she was in her early 20s. At the time, Ms. Spanberger had been conditionally hired by the C.I.A., pending a background investigation. She went on to work in law enforcement for two years at the Postal Inspection Service before the C.I.A. officially hired her.

She served as a covert officer for eight years, including intelligence gathering overseas in pursuit of terrorists.
“If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny that they are somehow trying to give me terrorist ties,” she said. “I put myself at risk to thwart the terrorist threat.”
The SF-86 form is 124 pages long and calls for voluminous personal information for the purpose of conducting background investigations, reinvestigations and continuous evaluations of people under consideration for national security positions. The investigation are conducted “to gather information to determine whether you are reliable, trustworthy, of good character and loyal to the United States,” the form states.
The disclosure of information from the forms is governed by the Privacy Act, and includes routine uses such as providing it to the Justice Department or a court or in the course of an investigation. It can also be disclosed “to the news media or general public, factual information the disclosure of which would be in the public interest and which would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
“I’m having a hard time thinking this is the conclusion of this,” Ms. Spanberger said.

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