Are new passport rules making the US safer?

Security experts urge a fuller vetting of passport seekers, even as big backlog persists.

A new rule aimed at protecting US borders is behind the backlog of passport applications that has frustrated countless Americans this summer.

But some experts and federal employees who check applications warn that these shortcomings mean more work needs to be done to improve this aspect of national security.

Increasing the number of Americans who hold passports will enhance border security, they agree. But limitations in the approval process, they add, make it difficult to be sure that those who shouldn't get a passport don't. Some argue that adjudicators aren't given enough time to thoroughly check applications; others say the databases used to verify an applicant's identity and eligibility are incomplete.

"In theory, it will be more difficult for [terrorists or criminals] to come into the US on false pretenses," says David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. However, people who should not be able to get passports may continue to slip through the cracks in the absence of improved information-sharing, he says.

Under the first phase of the new rule, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), nearly all US travelers who return by air from Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean must show a passport.

Prior to the new requirement, officials who process travelers coming from these locations were asked to evaluate nearly 8,000 different documents that Americans used as forms of identification when crossing the border.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, summarized the problem to a Senate committee: "Before the passage of this law, somebody like me could take a trip to the Caribbean and on the strength of my Staten Island accent and my Gold's Gym card talk my way back into America."

Passports are among the most secure government-issued documents. To receive passports, US citizens must prove citizenship and identity by presenting a birth certificate or baptismal record and a government-issued ID.

After 9/11, the State Department strengthened the application review process by ramping up the training of passport processors, increasing the number of fraud experts in passport offices, and expanding the information databases used to verify eligibility and identity, says Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services.

One example of expanded information-sharing comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, which gives the State Department access to its database of people who are behind in child support payments. Those who owe more than $2,500 are turned down for passports.

Still, "many links [between agencies] haven't been tested or fully established," Mr. Heyman says.

For instance, federal databases could communicate better with local and state databases, the usual repositories for birth-related documents, Harvard Law School immigration expert Matt Muller says. He adds, though, that this is unlikely since it "would be a tremendous undertaking" and could jeopardize individual privacy rights.

The State Department's Passport Services Office is "constantly working" to expand the amount of information used during the adjudication process, Ms. Barrett says.

The backlog is the result of a flood of passport applications, more than 1 million more than officials had expected. Passport Services had not hired enough agents to cope with the influx, a problem it is rushing to remedy.

On Tuesday, the State Department redirected more than 350 diplomats and newly hired civil servants to posts where they will review passport applications, the Associated Press reported. The WHTI was also temporarily amended until Sept. 30, so that American travelers without passports can show proof of passport application when entering the US by air.

With more to check during the process, passport processors need more time per application, says Colin Walle, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents passport adjudicators. Adjudicators have, on average, 2-1/2 minutes to evaluate an applicant's eligibility for a passport, although that time can vary. The union wants an average of three minutes per application.

Barrett disagrees with this assessment, saying her office reviews production standards "all the time to make sure they're reasonable and fair." Most passport specialists, she says, exceed those standards.

For now, Passport Services' priority is to eliminate the backlog before the next phase of the WHTI – which affects land and sea travel – goes into effect next year. The first phase applies only to air travel and went into effect on Jan. 1.

Ms. Harty says her office had predicted that 16.2 million Americans would apply for a passport in 2007: It now expects 17.5 million by year's end. The average wait for a new passport is 10 to 12 weeks – double the usual time – although some travelers say they have experienced a faster turnaround.

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