Washington, DC – Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) today chaired a hearing to examine vulnerabilities in the U.S. passport system that allow it to be exploited by criminals and terrorists. The Committee released a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which was requested by Chairman Collins and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), that detailed how passport fraud is committed and what challenges the U.S. State Department faces to prevent it. In response to the Committee’s investigation, the State Department announced at the hearing today that it last night signed an agreement with the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center to improve information sharing of Americans on the terrorist watch list.
The GAO report found that the State Department had not received information on U.S. citizens listed on the federal government’s consolidated terrorist watch list. In addition, they found that the State Department does not routinely receive the names of criminals and fugitives wanted by federal and state law enforcement agencies. A test of the Department’s name-checking system failed in more than half of the test cases, including checks for a suspect on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted List.
“The failure to share the names on the terrorist watch list means that a known or suspected terrorist could easily slip through one of our first lines of defense in protecting the country against terrorism – they could obtain a passport and travel freely in and out of the country, under the radar of law enforcement and border officials,” said Senator Collins. “It is inexcusable that we have been letting known terrorists and criminals slip through our fingers – and giving them the tool to get away with it – because government agencies have not been sharing names on a list.”
Senator Collins’ hearing also revealed that 69-percent of the passport fraud cases detected last year were accomplished with the use of fraudulent birth certificates and other false identification. Expert witnesses today pointed out that technological improvements have made it more difficult to counterfeit or alter a U.S. passport, but it remains less difficult to obtain an authentic passport by fraudulent means. The GAO report identified a number of weaknesses in the State Department’s efforts to detect and prevent passport fraud, including insufficient staffing, training, and oversight, and a lack of investigative resources dedicated to stopping passport fraud.
“Fraudulent travel documents are essential to terrorists, and the U.S. passport is the gold card of travel documents. As the 9/11 Commission found: ‘For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons,’” said Senator Collins. “Protecting the integrity of the U.S. passport is essential to protecting our citizens from those who would do harm to our nation. In fact, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that ensuring a failsafe passport system is ‘a critical component of our global effort to fight terrorism.’”
In addition to the agreement to share terrorist information, the FBI and State are making arrangements to better share names on the fugitive database. The State Department has also taken steps recently to improve fraud detection training, enhance oversight, and dedicate more resources to fraud investigations.