Go snoop yourself


Considering all the hoopla, I can't be the only one wondering what the hell is actually in a passport file.

According to the State Department's official blog (yes, the State Department has an official blog), here's what they keep:

Generally, after the State Department issues a passport, all personal documents are returned to the applicant – the only document kept in the Department’s passport file is the passport application. Passport files do not contain travel information, such as visa and entry stamps, from previous passports. Almost all passport files contain only a passport application form as completed by the applicant.

And, according to Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, here's what the paper trail looks like.

When you send in your passport application, it might go to a State Department office around the country, it might go to a clerk of the court, it might go to a library or a post office. That information is -- your application is assembled with others and transmitted via registered mail, via Federal Express -- all of it is traceable -- to one of our facilities, a facility such as the one that we work with the Department of the Treasury on in Newark, Delaware . And the information then is -- the envelopes are opened, the checks are removed so that they can be deposited to the Treasury's account, and then they are processed for onward transmission to one of the State Department's facilities that actually print out the passport books in your name (Source).

If you review the passport application form, you're not going to find much more than what's printed on your driver's license. At first blush, that hardly seems like the sort of thing that contains much to get excited about.

But, being good paranoids, we should be sure to note the weasel words in the State Department's blog post. They are "generally" and "almost all," which I can only take to mean that while most passport files may only contain the application form, some files contain other documents. What documents those are, it doesn't say.

On this particularly alarmist segment of The Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the host and his guests seem to think there's the potential for quite a lot more to be in there. (In a memorable bit of hype, Keith speculates that the file might be of "Watergatian" proportions). On the other hand, the reporting of Time's Brian Bennett seems more in line with the State Department's blog.

But hell if I know.

The good news is that we live in a free country, governed by laws, one of the best of which is the Freedom of Information Act (a.k.a FOIA). And, thereby, we all have the right to review government documents pertaining to ourselves.

So, getting to the bottom of this should only be a matter of paperwork and collective effort. Below is a form letter I've prepared using the State Department's FOIA handbook as a guide. I've already filled in my own information and will, later today, mail it off as a formal request.

You should feel free to do the same. Just don't expect a rapid response. The State Department annual report says the median response time on a typical request last year was 212 days. (Though, if you're willing to pay a little more money, the State Department's manual suggests you might get your documents quicker if you bypass FOIA law and make your document request with the Passport Services office.)

If you want to share what you get back, drop a comment when the time comes. I'll be sure to do the same.

[Today's Date]

[Your Name]
[Your Street Address]
[Your City, State and Zipcode]

Office of Information Programs and Services

Department of State, SA-2
Washington, DC 20522-8001
Re: Freedom of Information Act Request

Dear Sir or Madame:

I am writing to request the release of personal records under the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

I, [Your Name], born [Your Place of Birth] on [Your Date of Birth], request the release of any and all documents contained in my passport file. I believe the Department of State is likely to have maintained such records since I am a current passport holder who has traveled abroad.

I further request that the results of your search be forwarded to my current address, detailed above. If the expense required to perform this search is estimated to exceed $25 dollars, I expect notification from your office and the option to reformulate the request as stipulated in your agency's official policy. If any information is withheld, I request to be notified of the amount of information withheld, the basis for its withholding and my options for appeal, as is my right.

I [declare, certify, verify, of state] under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United

States of America, that the foregoing is true and correct.

If you have any questions or concerns, I can be reached by telephone at [Your Phone Number].


[Your Signature]

If you're going to play along, you don't have to send the exact same letter, but you should be sure to include that line about verifying your own identity under penalty of perjury. Otherwise you'll either have to have the letter notarized or the government won't take you on your word that this is a personal request. At least that's what the manual says.