- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

U.S. government security agencies are investigating a criminal ring in Thailand that produced counterfeit passports and other travel documents, including hundreds of fake U.S. passports sold on the black market, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said yesterday.

“We are assisting the Thai government on this,” said ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly, who added that the quality of the forged U.S. passports was not yet known.

Hundreds of U.S. passports recovered from the counterfeit ring headed by a Bangladeshi national — identified by Thai police as Mohamad Karim — did not include the new electronic passport produced by the Government Printing Office (GPO) through a contractor in Thailand, Ms. Riley said.

The Thai government is leading the investigation, she said.

Thailand police Lt. Col. Sophon Saragat told reporters in Bangkok that Mr. Karim was arrested Saturday and large numbers of fraudulent U.S. and European passports were found at a residence.

The police raid on the rented house in Bangkok uncovered 90 legitimate passports, 577 counterfeit U.S. and European passports, 680 counterfeit visas and 1,680 fake passport photo pages for U.S. passports, Col. Saragat stated.

“Karim confessed and he was charged with conspiring to make counterfeit passports for sale, and making fake visas,” Col. Saragat was quoted as saying after the arrest Saturday.

Police Maj. Gen. Chaktip Chaichinda told Reuters news agency that Mr. Karim “admitted that he made fake passports.”

A Thai national and Burmese national also were linked to the counterfeit ring but have not been arrested.

Thai police described the passport counterfeiting operation as “sophisticated.” The passports were offered for the Thai currency equivalent of $95 to $315 each and netted Mr. Karim some $9,500 to $12,600 a month.

In addition to U.S. counterfeit passports, investigators found French, Spanish, Belgian and Maltese counterfeit documents that police said were sold to a group of Thai and Burmese collaborators. The passports were then sold to gangs linked to prostitution, terrorism and smuggling, Gen. Chaktip said.

Other fake passports included Malaysian, Singapore and Japanese travel documents.

The Burmese man was identified as Tin Oo, who rented the house and set up the factory for fake passports.

Security concerns about the manufacture of U.S. passport components in Thailand were raised by U.S. officials and security experts during an investigation by The Washington Times.

Passport covers containing electronic security chips are made at a factory in Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, where they are fitted with a wire radio frequency identification antenna.

The GPO, the congressional agency in charge of producing new passports, has said that the U.S. passport-production facility in Thailand is secure.

The company in Thailand that makes the passport covers, Smartrac, was a target of Chinese economic espionage in the past, according to a court filing in Netherlands.

Congressional investigators have criticized GPO for using European-made integrated circuits, which are intended as a security device in the passport, and assembling the booklet covers in Thailand, because of concerns that blank passports could be stolen during transit.

GPO spokesmen have said the production process is secure and that the State Department has checked the security of the Thailand Smartrac plant.

Earlier this month, a group of House Republicans introduced legislation that would require the State Department to use U.S.-made components for new electronic passports and to assemble the booklets here, to help prevent theft or counterfeiting.

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