US tries to stamp 'secure' on passports

Congress considers ways to make the IDs, which are easy to obtain, less vulnerable to terrorists.

A US passport is the gold standard for travelers as well as terrorists and international criminals.

Almost four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a government investigation found that it's still possible for individuals on the terrorist watch list and wanted criminals to obtain a US passport. That's prompted a new urgency on Capitol Hill to improve security and fraud detection at the State Department, as well as communications with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which maintains a consolidated terrorist watch list.

At the same time, controversy continues over the best way to create "fraud proof" passports using new technology like biometric identifiers - iris scans or fingerprints - embedded in computer chips within the passport. Critics worry such technological fixes could make passport holders "walking targets" internationally because, they contend, terrorists or others could use radio scanners to identify Americans in a crowd. But supporters counter that new passports can be made so that the radio signals sent by the computer chips can be read only from a few feet away or when the passport is open.

While lawmakers do applaud the efforts to improve passport and diplomatic security so far, there is also agreement that significantly more needs to be done. "Protecting the integrity of the US passport is essential to protecting our citizens from those who would do harm to our nation," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In 2004, the State Department issued 8.8 million passports from 7,000 locations, including post offices. During that same year, the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security arrested 500 people for passport fraud, according to the Government Accountability Office, which conducted the investigation. Of those, 300 were convicted.

But experts in passport fraud say that significantly more passports are fraudulently obtained every year, in part because it's so easy to buy the documents needed to get a passport. A few hundred or a few thousand dollars can buy a birth certificate in most cities.

Indeed, the GAO study found that in 69 percent of the passport-fraud cases detected last year, individuals used what is essentially "identity theft" - such as using another person's legitimate birth certificate - to apply for a passport. (False claims that passports were lost or stolen accounted for the rest.)

"We know you can go to any city in the United States, and you're probably going to find someone on the street corner who's selling birth certificates, Social Security cards, and other documents that can be used to obtain a driver's license and apply for a US passport," says Michael Johnson, former special agent in charge of the Miami field office of the Diplomatic Security Service. "In my experience, I don't think these so-called document vendors selling breeder documents would think twice about selling them to someone who was here to commit terrorism or bank robbery."

Mr. Johnson, who testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, contends that the State Department is not providing sufficient resources to combat passport fraud and that it lacks the analytic capacity needed to do so.

"During my service ... I found that there was simply no institutional capacity to spot and understand trends, analyze information gained from operations, and share intelligence across the [Diplomatic Security Service] and other law-enforcement organizations," he says. "The lack of such an intelligence capacity cripples DSS's ability to identify and dismantle organizations across the world that are involved in the manufacture and sale of counterfeit documents used to illegally enter and or remain in the United States."

The GAO's investigation also finds a consistent lack of effective information-sharing with other agencies. For instance, the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS,) which is used to screen passport applicants, is not connected to the nation's larger terrorist watch list at the Terrorist Screening Center.

While the State Department does have regular communications with the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, the GAO found the communications to be ineffective. The department's CLASS system holds about 50,000 names, while there are about 1.2 million fugitives in the US. Investigators tested 67 names of wanted criminals, including some on the FBI's most-wanted list. Fewer than half were on the State Department's watch list.

One of the names tested was Donald Eugene Webb, who's on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list but not in the CLASS system. "If someone like Mr. Webb could potentially apply for and receive a passport, the prospects of denying passports to possible terrorists are most worrisome," says Senator Collins.

Officials at the State Department counter that they already working to improve communications with the both law enforcement and homeland security officials. Indeed, they are on the verge of signing an agreement that will give consular offices access to the consolidated terrorism watch list. They are also negotiating with the FBI to ensure their databases are more current.

And they are working to improve training for staff responsible for accepting applications, as well as beefing up their antifraud staffs.

"We're in the process of adding more fraud-prevention managers to our ... larger agencies, and we have increased the numbers of persons working in the fraud offices," says Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs. "This will have a direct impact on improving the training that is provided to the passport specialists who adjudicate passport applications."

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