Friday, March 28, 2008

Part 3 of a three-part series on the outsourcing of U.S. passports.

When the government finally built a backup passport center to be used in case Washington became debilitated, it picked a location directly in the path of potential future disaster, the hurricane-prone Mississippi Gulf Coast, which was ravaged by Katrina just a few years ago.

The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) originally planned to build the backup center in a high-security nuclear facility in the Nevada desert, right in the back yard of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But in 2006, the agency moved the proposed plant to an empty Army ammunition plant at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the home of then-Sen. Trent Lott, the Republican who also was chairman of the congressional committee that oversaw the GPO, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Times.

The backup plant, which is near completion and already is testing equipment, is being outfitted with German-made printing presses and Japanese-made binding equipment in an area that faces a high risk of hurricanes. The eye of Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coast near the Space Center and killed more than 230 people in Mississippi alone.

Documents reviewed by The Times state the GPO’s internal watchdog suspects the agency did not follow proper procedure in selecting the Mississippi site and that concerns have been raised for other government structures being placed in the same area because of its proximity to the Gulf region’s famed hurricane alley.

For instance, an environmental assessment conducted by a contractor for a replacement water and sewage maintenance building for a proposed Hancock County government building at nearby Stennis International Airport stated the area where the backup passport plant is located is “within the Hurricane Katrina impact zone and could be susceptible to future storm impacts.”

GPO officials have little to say about their reasons for the move.

After several site analyses, “GPO and the State Department determined Stennis Space Center to be the most secure and cost-effective location,” GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said. As for the potential for future disaster in Mississippi, Mr. Somerset added “there was a challenge” in meeting security requirements for a secure production plant outside Washington.

A Lott spokesman said the former senator is unaware of the arrangement and would not otherwise comment

The Times examined the state of America’s new e-passport program, disclosing in stories this week that the GPO outsourced production of key components for the passport to overseas facilities and has charged the State Department substantially more than it actually costs to make each passport.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday her department is investigating the pricing issues, and two congressional committees also launched investigations into the security issues raised by having the crown jewels of America’s border-security system produced overseas.

Several GPO officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, told The Times they have been deeply concerned about the placement of the backup passport facility in a region with the potential for severe hurricanes.

“Secure locations, such as military reservations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia or Pennsylvania would have been more convenient to the GPO skilled work force that would need to establish and operate the new facility,” said one official critical of the plan.

The backup center is part of the State Department’s “continuity-of-government program,” which is designed to ensure that the GPO could keep mass producing the passports required for entering or exiting the United States in case its current, lone production plant, on North Capitol Street in the District, was hampered by terrorism or some other disaster, such as an electrical fire.

The decision to locate the plant at the Stennis Space Center canceled an earlier plan between then-Public Printer Bruce James to build the second passport plant in his home state of Nevada. That deal was blocked by congressional Republicans who charged that Mr. James collaborated with Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, to locate the GPO plant in their home state.

The new plant is a key factor in the GPO’s generation of record profits from the sale of new electronic passports to the State Department, according to administration officials.

Congress, through the Joint Committee on Printing, authorized the GPO to raise $41 million for the plant — $10 million for building renovation, $17 million for new equipment and $14 million for information technology, equipment installation and security.

However, senior GPO managers continue to raise millions of dollars well after reaching the target last year by selling electronic passports to the State Department at about twice the cost.

Investigators revealed that the GPO is producing passports with an electronic computer chip for about $8 per blank passport and then selling them to the State Department for about $15. The sales generated an estimated $144 million over the past 16 months, more than $100 million in excess of the project’s needs.

The plant is needed as the United States issues a huge number of new secure passports, which incorporate a computer chip that broadcasts personal passport-holder data to a border and customs official with an electronic scanner. The GPO is the sole producer of the new passports and plans to produce some 30 million a year.

Acting Public Printer William H. Turri in July 2007 wrote to Rep. Robert A. Brady, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing, which oversees the agency, to request funding for the construction of the second plant.

The facility is now being built without proper authorization procedures, according to a draft report by the GPO inspector general. The report stated that the GPO did not do a complete analysis of other sites, failed to issue formal project plans and did not conduct a required risk-management assessment or an acquisition plan.

Plans to use the Nevada site for the backup plant were disclosed in the GPO’s “Strategic Vision for the 21st Century,” dated Dec. 1, 2004. It stated a new, secure, passport-production facility would be built at the Nevada Test Site, described as “one of the nation’s most secure federal locations.”

The State Department first requested a backup facility in 2005, when Frank E. Moss, deputy assistant secretary of state, stated in a letter to the GPO that “I am concerned that the GPO has no redundant or back up capabilities for passport production.”

Mr. Moss stated that an electrical fire or a “major act of terrorism” would knock out the State Department’s passport production at a time when demand for passports was expected to approach 15 million per year.

“We have invested literally tens of millions of dollars at the State Department to eliminate ‘single points of failure’ and to establish back up capabilities to support all aspects of our passport adjudication and production process,” he wrote.

Mr. Moss urged that the backup passport plant be built “as rapidly as may be practicable” in an area outside Washington to make sure government can continue to operate after a terrorist attack or other crisis.

  • Part 1: Outsourced passport work scrutinized

  • Part 2: GPO profits go to bonuses and trips

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