Mon Nov 29, 4:41 PM ET
By Samantha Levine, US News And World Report
When it comes to terrorists’ most valuable weapons, passports and visas probably rank higher than bullets and bombs. Without such documents, terrorists can’t easily travel to train, conduct reconnaissance, or prepare for an attack. “They are the greatest tools that terrorists have in their arsenal,” says Asa Hutchinson, under secretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. That fact became clear in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was discovered that all 19 of the hijackers had made it into the United States with doctored or suspicious passports. Though much has been done to tighten border security since then, frightening gaps remain–about 10 million of them, in fact.
That’s how many lost and stolen travel documents are believed to be in circulation worldwide. Many countries don’t adequately report missing passports to international authorities, and plans for a fraudproof passport have gotten off to a slow start. There is some progress–just last week, at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, officials from Australia, Chile, and the United States announced a pilot program to automatically check airline passengers’ passport numbers against numbers on stolen documents. Still, says Fred Ikle, a former under secretary of defense: “We are way behind where we should be.”
The danger of bogus travel documents is well documented. One of the men behind the March 12, 2003, assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in Belgrade, for instance, traveled through six European countries on a Croatian passport stolen from Bosnia. And new evidence “strongly suggests that some stolen passports have been used to successfully enter the U.S. even to the present,” according to DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin.
Stolen. Perhaps the most ominous problem involves passports stolen from countries with open travel relationships with the United States. The State Department’s visa-waiver program allows citizens from countries that meet certain standards, such as low rates of illegal immigration, to travel to the United States for 90 days just by showing their passport–meaning they avoid the more rigorous visa-screening process. The program covers 27 nations, including most of Western Europe. Between June 1991 and February 2004, more than 200 people carrying visa-waiver passports popped up on terrorist watch lists, according to Ervin. So security experts worry when passports from those countries go missing–like the 16,000 stolen from France since June 2001–or aren’t reported. “On a scale of 0 to 10, my frustration level is 11,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble told U.S. News. Interpol created a database of lost and stolen passport serial numbers two years ago, but because of problems ranging from high-level embarrassment to technical difficulties, only about a third of its 182 member countries are currently contributing data. The United States began sharing its records–serial numbers for about 550,000 lost or stolen passports–in May. All 182 countries can check the information, but the database won’t be fully effective until border agents everywhere have automatic, real-time access, says terror expert Brian Jenkins of Rand. And that’s been delayed by a host of diplomatic, technological, and financial barriers.
Another way to stop terrorists from infiltrating the United States is to closely inspect visa applications. It was definitely a soft spot before 9/11, when al Qaeda ran a “travel office” at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan Only after the attacks were homeland security officials given authority to investigate visa applications overseas, beginning in Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 hijackers had obtained visas. But the program was not initially given a dedicated budget, forcing it to send a temporary team of officers, most of whom couldn’t speak Arabic, according to a report by Ervin; the initiative has received $14 million for 2005.
More encouragingly, some loopholes are closing. Since September 30, travelers from countries in the visa-waiver program have had to go through the Homeland Security Department’s nearly year-old U.S.-Visit program, which requires foreign citizens to submit fingerprints and digital photos to U.S. border agents. Once those are in the system, U.S. agents can confirm travelers’ identities and check them against watch lists. “That substantially closes that security gap,” says Hutchinson. Beginning next October, new passports from those nations must be embedded with biometric datalike fingerprints. But for now, that’s one more door to America that remains ajar.