- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The annals of incompetent federal empire-building have a new entry: the Government Printing Office’s e-Passport program. As a three-part series by Bill Gertz of The Washington Times shows, this little-known near-monopoly of U.S. government printing earned tidy “profits” by charging the State Department 85 percent over production costs of U.S. passports. In the meantime, it made a fine mess of passport security with the help of its friends at Foggy Bottom. (See today’s front page for the last installment of “Outsourcing Passports.”)

The pricing shell game is contrary to the spirit and possibly the letter of the laws that govern GPO operations. “Profit” is prohibited: This is taxpayer money, whether it is coming or going. Price-gaming distorts incentives and fuels empire-building. This, of course, is just what the GPO did under a guise of purported “private sector” management techniques. It enabled bonuses for budding agency entrepreneurs, funded a new production facility and yielded a $100 million bonanza over 16 months for which the GPO has not fully accounted.

But security, not management, is the heart of any story concerning the key identity document of the United States. Here, there were disastrous, almost incomprehensible failures. How many Americans realize that U.S. passports and their components travel a production process that spans the globe — from the Netherlands to Thailand and back to the United States — which is plagued with critical security gaps? How many realize that U.S. authorities purposely declined to manufacture the most critical U.S. identity document inside the United States for technical reasons, risking infiltration, theft and crisis outside U.S. borders? How many understand the danger in the event that blank passports or high-tech passport components are stolen or transferred to terrorists or spies?

Some of this has already happened. The new high-tech U.S. passports are fitted with wire Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) antennae at a factory in Ayutthana, Thailand. The assembler and patent-holder, Netherlands-based Smartrac Technology Ltd., “divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented chip technology for e-passport chips.” Another Communist Chinese espionage coup.

As if blind to the dangers of global transport of blank U.S. passports and passport components, federal officials have even mailed blank passports by unsecure FedEx delivery, as the investigation by The Washington Times revealed. Blank passports are a free ticket to entry into the United States. They must not fall into the hands of terrorists or foreign agents.

This is a tale of failed oversight and danger to national security. We urge Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, ranking Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and their colleagues to investigate the subject as vigorously as possible.

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