Reforms don't stop passport fakery

March 13, 2009 12:13:56 PM PDT
Using phony documents and the identities of a dead man and a 5-year-old boy, a government investigator obtained U.S. passports in a test of post-9/11 security. Despite efforts to boost passport security since the 2001 terror attacks, the investigator fooled passport and postal service employees on four separate applications, according to a new report.

The ruses are detailed in a report being issued this week by the Government Accountability Office. A draft summary of the findings was obtained by The Associated Press.

In one instance, the investigator used the Social Security number of a man who died in 1965, a fake New York birth certificate and fake Florida driver's license. He received a passport four days later.

In another attempt, the investigator used a 5-year-old boy's information but identified himself as 53 years old on the passport application. He received that passport seven days later.

In another test, the investigator used fake documents to get a genuine Washington D.C. identification card. He then used the card to apply for a passport and received it the same day.

In a fourth test, the investigator used a fake New York birth certificate and a fake West Virginia driver's license and got the passport eight days later.

Criminals and terrorists place a high value on illegally obtained travel documents, U.S. intelligence officials have said. Currently, poorly faked passports are sold on the black market for $300, while top-notch fakes go for around $5,000, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations.

The State Department has known about this vulnerability for years. On February 26, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary of passport services issued a memo to Passport Services directors across the country stating that the agency is reviewing its processes for issuing passports because of "recent events regarding several passport applications that were approved and issued in error."

In the memo, obtained by The Associated Press, Brenda Sprague said that in 2009 passport services would focus on the quality, not the quantity, of its passport issuance decisions. Typically, passport services officials are evaluated on how many passports they issue. Instead, Sprague said, the specialists should focus all their efforts on improving the integrity of the process, including "a renewed emphasis for Passport Specialists on recognizing authentic documents and fraud indicators on applications."

Over the past seven years, U.S. officials have tried to increase passport security and make it more difficult to apply with fake documents.

But these tests show the State Department - which processes applications and issues passports - does not have the ability to ensure that supporting documents are legitimate, said Janice Kephart, an expert on travel document security who worked on the 9/11 Commission report.

Kephart said this is the same problem that enabled some of the 9/11 hijackers to use fake documents to get Virginia driver's licenses, which they used to board airplanes. Since 2001, states have taken measures to make driver's licenses more secure.

"We have to address the ... document issue in a very big way, and we have yet to do that across the board," Kephart said.

A State Department spokesman declined comment, saying agency officials had not seen the report.

Two members of the Senate Judiciary terrorism and homeland security subcommittee requested the investigation.

"It's very troubling that in the years since the September 11 attacks someone could use fraudulent documents to obtain a U.S. passport," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said in a statement.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the report confirmed her fears that U.S. passports aren't secure.

"These passports can be used to purchase a weapon, fly overseas, or open a fraudulent bank account," Feinstein said. "This puts our nation in grave danger."

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