Mexican official fired after BlackBerrys go missing at US summit

MEXICO CITY -- A press aide at the president's office has been dismissed after allegations he took BlackBerrys belonging to U.S. officials at a summit in New Orleans, an official said Friday.

Rafael Quintero Curiel acknowledged picking up two of the telephone and e-mail devices at the New Orleans summit involving the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada this week, but said he thought they had been left behind and tried to return them.

The phones were recovered, according to White House Press Secretary Dana Marie Perino, who said she did not know if they contained sensitive information.

A Mexican government spokeswoman said Quintero Curiel had been dismissed from his year-old job coordinating logistics for reporters covering President Felipe Calderon's international trips. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to talk to the media about the case.

Participants at summits often are asked to leave their cell phones on a table outside meeting rooms to avoid distractions or as a security measure.

In Washington, Perino said on Thursday that "an individual from the Mexican delegation or a staff member was involved in these BlackBerrys, the disappearance of a couple of BlackBerrys."

She said "the matter is under investigation by law enforcement officials and they haven't decided yet what exactly happened, but they're working on it." It was not clear how many of the devices were taken or who they belonged to.

While Perino did not mention Quintero Curiel by name, local media reported that video surveillance cameras filmed him making off with the devices.

In a letter sent to The Associated Press and local media, Quintero Curiel said he had picked up the phones thinking they had been forgotten, and intended to send them to their owners.

"Upon noticing that they had been left behind by their owners, and given that most of the delegates had left the hotel where the event was taking place, I picked up two cellular phones with the intention of returning them to their owners," Quintero Curiel wrote.

He said he had to rush to a closing ceremony and then to the airport for a flight. "I didn't find the appropriate method to return the telephones," he said, so he gave them to a driver to take back to the hotel, with instructions to hand them to the desk clerks.

In the letter, he said U.S. Secret Service agents had approached him at the airport, asking him to return the BlackBerrys, but he said the agents thanked him for his help when he explained the incident.

David Gewirtz, an expert on e-mail security and author of the book "Where Have All The Emails Gone?", said on Friday that the incident showed the vulnerability of U.S. data.

"The real simple issue is that what's inside the devices could be potentially enormously damaging," he said. "It ranges from simple things like home addresses and phone numbers ... up to things like plans for negotiations we might have with other countries."

Gewirtz has urged the U.S. government to establish systems to protecting such devices. He complained that they "are not perceived as national security risks. That's a problem. They're perceived as a secretarial convenience."

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