Passport cards called security vulnerability

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The lawmakers noted that the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission final report stated that “travel documents are as important as weapons” for global terrorists.

In a separate letter to the State Department on May 2, Mr. Carney asked for a briefing on the passport cards, saying “we need to have confidence that these cards cannot be compromised by terrorists, drug smugglers, human traffickers and others who would break our laws and do us harm.”

The State Department considered a prototype passport card designed by General Dynamics that used the optical security strip but rejected the option, preferring a passport card that contains an RFID chip made in Europe.

An optical security strip appears as a dark, 1-inch-wide line on the top of a card. Close inspection of the strip reveals ultra-high resolution images that security specialists say cannot be counterfeited and can be identified easily by border officials. Security specialists say the strip is needed to boost the security features of the RFID chip in the passport cards.

L-1 Identity Solutions announced in March that it won the State Department contract, which has an estimated value of $107 million over five years.

The cards are intended for use by travelers in U.S. border communities as a “less expensive and more portable alternative to the traditional passport book,” according to the State Department Web site. The cards are not valid for entry into the United States by travelers arriving by aircraft.

Mr. Hesse, the former Forensic Document Laboratory intelligence chief, stated in a 2006 letter to Mr. Chertoff that he is “seriously alarmed” by the use of RFID technology on the passport card. He also noted that the U.S. permanent residence and border-crossing cards that use the optical security strip are being phased out.

“With my 30-plus years experience in the field of travel and identity document security, this is, in my opinion, a shortsighted and extremely risky decision,” Mr. Hesse stated.

Because the passport card will be widely accepted as an official travel document for entry into the country, “this card will definitely become the document of choice for counterfeiters,” Mr. Hesse said.

“Why would a non-U.S. citizen even bother to counterfeit the green card? The PassCard makes you a U.S. citizen and gives you the access to and/or the privileges mentioned above,” he stated. “Therefore, it should be imperative that the U.S. government produce and provide the most secure card as possible.”

Brian Zimmer, a former House Judiciary Committee investigator, said the new passport cards lack sufficient security features because the State Department did not demand them of the contractor, L-1 Identity Solutions.

“It’s critical that the passport card be made highly counterfeit-resistant,” said Mr. Zimmer, now head of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License. “The State Department should address these deficiencies and change the contract so the manufacturer can address them.” Mr. Zimmer was for a time a consultant on the passport card to a subcontractor of General Dynamics.

Frank Moss, a former State Department passport office official who is now a consultant to L-1, said the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security set the specifications for the contract.

“It was government security experts who determined the specifications,” Mr. Moss said in an interview. “The optical stripe, quite honestly, was never used as a stand-alone security feature.”

The federal government plans to supply only 39 ports of entry with equipment capable of checking the validity of the cards with electronic scanners. More than 300 other entry points will not have the RFID chip readers.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon ( He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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