Passport probe ratchets up call to fight fraud

State’s request for new power raises data-privacy concerns

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 passport issuers need law-enforcement authority to override privacy protections on government databases so they can check identities and documents to weed out fakes.

But the State Department’s request might not be an easy sell, as it raises concerns about access to and control of personal information - especially since some departmental staffers illegally accessed the passport data of several presidential candidates during the 2008 campaign.

“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,” Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security on Thursday.

“While we have improved [since the undercover tests in 2008], there’s still more work to be done,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “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 denied, but the other five were approved and issued.

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 had been approved, and got wind of the undercover probe. They retrieved from the mail two passports that had been issued.

The DSS officers spotted the connections by using facial-recognition technology that passport adjudicators already are authorized to use but that was not used in the application-checking process, investigators said.

Investigators also said that consular-affairs officials did not cross-check the bogus 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 told the subcommittee. 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.

The results follow a similar test by the same team of GAO investigators in 2008. There have been improvements since that test, said Mr. Kutz, 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 authority 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.

His bill - backed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Joe 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.

Some lawmakers appeared skeptical of the administration’s request for additional powers. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, asked why officials need the law-enforcement designation.

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