The Obama administration is asking Congress for new powers to fight identity fraud after undercover government investigators obtained U.S. passports using forged documents for the second time in less than two years.
State Department officials say staff who adjudicate applications and issue passports need law enforcement authority.
"Our efforts to gain access to information are hampered because [Consular Affairs] is not considered a law-enforcement entity for information-sharing purposes. We need this designation," says Brenda S. Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, according to prepared testimony for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security.
While we have improved" since the last set of tests in 2008, "there's still more work to be done," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. "And we expect that Congress will be fully supportive of the new, expanded authorities and resources that we'll need to finish the job."
Behind the appeal for new powers is a dramatic tale: Earlier this year, undercover investigators for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted seven passport applications using counterfeit documents and fake identities. Two were spotted as fraudulent and denied, but the other five were approved and issued, in one case after a supervisor overruled a passport officer who was suspicious.
At the last minute, law enforcement officers from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) spotted connections between the two denied applications and some of the five that already had been approved, and got wind of the undercover investigation. They were able to identify and retrieve two passports that had been issued, even though they already had been mailed out to investigators.
The DSS officers spotted the connections by using facial recognition technology that is already available to passport adjudicators but was not used in the initial application-checking process, investigators said.
They also said that Consular Affairs officials also did not cross-check the bogus citizenship and identity documents in the fake applications with databases they already have access to.
The GAO team tailored their fake applications to raise red flags for issuing officials, chief investigator Gregory Kutz says in prepared testimony. They used passport photos of the same investigator on multiple applications, 62-year-old applicants gave Social Security numbers issued in 2009, and applicants gave multiple addresses and phone numbers in different states.
"These were fraud indicators that should have been identified and questioned," Mr. Kutz says.
The results follow a similar test by the same team of investigators for the GAO last year. There were improvements since that test, Mr. Kutz said, but "State's passport issuance process continues to be vulnerable to fraud."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and subcommittee chairman, on Thursday presented a bill he said would grant Consular Affairs officials the authorities they need. It also would require Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to study the use of biometric data such as fingerprints as a way to reduce passport fraud.
The legislation -- backed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent -- "will help to close the door on passport fraud," Mr. Cardin said.
But the proposal, which was presented without any Republican co-sponsors, may prove controversial.
In March 2008, news organizations reported that the passport applications of several candidates in the presidential campaign had been accessed without proper authorization by State Department officials. Four employees and contractors subsequently pleaded guilty to offenses connected with illegally accessing passport records.
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and one of the lawmakers who, along with Mr. Cardin, requested the undercover testing, said the danger is that U.S. enemies could exploit loopholes in the passport issuance process.
"The GAO testimony today shows that vulnerabilities in the U.S. passport system exist that could allow a foreign terrorist to use fraudulent citizenship and identity documents to successfully obtain a passport," she said in a statement.
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