Postal Service Accepts Blame for Release of Candidate’s Security File, and Asks for It Back

WASHINGTON — The Postal Service on Thursday said it “deeply regrets our mistake in inappropriately releasing” the official personnel file of Abigail Spanberger, a former C.I.A. operative now running as Democratic candidate for Congress, and requested that a Republican-aligned super PAC return the file.

“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.

“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.

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,” the statement said. The Postal Service will also change how it handles and processes requests as an additional safeguard, it said.

The Republican research firm had obtained the file in an uncharacteristically rapid fashion under the federal records law. 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 on Wednesday sent a letter to Ms. Spanberger’s lawyer, Graham Wilson, calling the allegation that the group had somehow illegally obtained the information “baseless.” Instead, the letter said, the group received the security clearance form through a normal freedom of information request.

“As is its right, CLF therefore will continue to disseminate this information through all available means so that voters can reach an informed conclusion regarding their choice at the polls on November 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,” and 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’ form about his contact with Russian officials before the election, said Austin Evers, 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.”

Ms. Newton’s letter demands that Ms. Spanberger “immediately cease and desist from leveling false and irresponsible charges.”

Mr. Wilson, the candidate’s lawyer, responded with his own letter, saying, “Astonishingly, CLF has persisted in distributing Ms. Spanberger’s Social Security number and you have refused to agree that you will not continuing distributing it in the future.”

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-84 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 Department of Justice, a court or in the course of an investigation. It also can 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.”