- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

BANGKOK Authorities in Thailand are stopping as many as 200 people every month many of them from Pakistan and Arabic countries trying to enter the United States on forged travel documents, a U.S. official said.

Working with Thai authorities, U.S. officials often discover foreign passports that have been sold by their legal owners or have been stolen or forged.

"We find [bogus] passports from pretty much all over the world," the U.S. official said in an interview.

Especially prized are "passports from visa-waiver countries," such as Canada, which allow the passport holder to enter the United States without a visa.

The crackdown highlights the problems faced by the State Department's consular service, which has been accused of lax enforcement since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

News reports this week said that 71 Arabs, including some linked to the September 11 attacks, bought U.S. visas for $10,000 each from a consulate in Qatar in the Persian Gulf.

Bangkok traditionally has been a main transit point for Chinese trying to escape to the West and the Far East on forged documents, but recently that profile has shifted.

Thailand's national police chief, Gen. Sant Sarutanont, told the Bangkok Post recently that although the number of Chinese forgers is dropping, that of Pakistani and Arab forgers is increasing.

But there is no evidence that members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network have tried to get into the United States through Bangkok, the U.S. official said.

"We are seeing a lot of document fraud, but we haven't seen any direct links" to al Qaeda. "Nothing out of the ordinary," he said.

Since September 11, however, Bangkok-based U.S. investigators are taking a fresh look at the endless flow of illegal travelers and counterfeit documents.

"We are sending back every bit of intelligence that we might not have focused on before because now we're working closely with the FBI and other agencies to see if we've got a piece of a puzzle that they might need," the official said.

"There is a lot of document fraud here," he added, asking not to be further identified.

Those intercepted by Thai authorities include women and children who are being smuggled into the United States, the U.S. official said.

Most of them take a circuitous route through Europe or Canada but eventually want to get to America, he said.

Intercepting the illegal travelers poses several difficulties because they often use several passports, the U.S. official said.

Confusion arises when people carrying fake passports are stopped but refuse to reveal their nationality, he said.

"You'll have people from all spectrums try to pass themselves off as different nationalities. So it is really hard to nail it down," he said. "You are only as good as your database."

Equally perplexing are Thailand-based gangs who print forged passports, visas and other papers for customers all over the world.

Most counterfeiters in Thailand are foreigners, though Thai criminals also are involved, he said.

"We have worked with the Thais, and we actually found the printing presses. We had two cases where they were cranking out like 3,000 passports per customer."

In one case, "this guy had every document you could think of, from every country," the U.S. official said.

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