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After the computer chips are inserted into the back cover of the passports in Europe, the blank covers are shipped to a factory in Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, to be fitted with a wire Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, antenna. The blank passports eventually are transported to Washington for final binding, according to the documents and interviews.

The stop in Thailand raises its own security concerns. The Southeast Asian country has battled social instability and terror threats. Anti-government groups backed by Islamists, including al Qaeda, have carried out attacks in southern Thailand and the Thai military took over in a coup in September 2006.

The Netherlands-based company that assembles the U.S. e-passport covers in Thailand, Smartrac Technology Ltd., warned in its latest annual report that, in a worst-case scenario, social unrest in Thailand could lead to a halt in production.

Smartrac divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips, raising additional questions about the security of America’s e-passports.

Transport concerns

A 2005 document obtained by The Times states that GPO was using unsecure FedEx courier services to send blank passports to State Department offices until security concerns were raised and forced GPO to use an armored car company. Even then, the agency proposed using a foreign armored car vendor before State Department diplomatic security officials objected.

Concerns that GPO has been lax in addressing security threats contrast with the very real danger that the new e-passports could be compromised and sold on the black market for use by terrorists or other foreign enemies, experts said.

“The most dangerous passports, and the ones we have to be most concerned about, are stolen blank passports,” said Ronald K. Noble, secretary general of Interpol, the Lyon, France-based international police organization. “They are the most dangerous because they are the most difficult to detect.”

Mr. Noble said no counterfeit e-passports have been found yet, but the potential is “a great weakness and an area that world governments are not paying enough attention to.”

Lukas Grunwald, a computer security expert, said U.S. e-passports, like their European counterparts, are vulnerable to copying and that their shipment overseas during production increases the risks. “You need a blank passport and a chip and once you do that, you can do anything, you can make a fake passport, you can change the data,” he said.

Separately, Rep. Robert A. Brady, chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing, has expressed “serious reservations” about GPO’s plan to use contract security guards to protect GPO facilities. In a Dec. 12 letter, Mr. Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, stated that GPO’s plan for conducting a security review of the printing office was ignored and he ordered GPO to undertake an outside review.

Questionable profits

GPO’s accounting adds another layer of concern.

The State Department is now charging Americans $100 or more for new e-passports produced by the GPO, depending on how quickly they are needed. That’s up from a cost of around just $60 in 1998.

Internal agency documents obtained by The Times show each blank passport costs GPO an average of just $7.97 to manufacture and that GPO then charges the State Department about $14.80 for each, a margin of more than 85 percent, the documents show.

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