Information Gaps Allowing Unchecked Access to Passports

Review shows lack of data sharing allowed easy access for criminals, terrorists to passports


WASHINGTON (AP) - Governmental failures to share terrorist and criminal data have helped fugitives obtain U.S. passports by slipping through holes in security screening systems, congressional investigators have found.

In a review of 67 state and federal fugitives identified by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 37 successfully applied for passports. One of them was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for murdering a Pennsylvania police chief, according to the GAO report that was issued Wednesday.

Investigators concluded many of the passports were granted because the State Department did not have information from the FBI and the Terrorist Screening Center that would have alerted it to the fugitives' applications. The State Department issued 8.8 million passports last year.

''These challenges make it more difficult to protect U.S. citizens from terrorists, criminals and others who would harm the United States,'' the GAO report concluded.

The report examined passport fraud that authorities say is linked to various other crimes, including drug trafficking, money laundering and alien smuggling.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Moss told senators at a morning hearing that recent agreements with the FBI and the terror screening center should ensure the department gets the information it needs _ and help it flag security threats. He said an agreement between the State Department and the screening center was signed Tuesday night _ the day before the Senate Homeland Security Committee's hearing.

Moss and officials from the FBI and screening center said the three agencies have informally exchanged data among each other for years. But they agreed that gaps in the information-sharing system need to be closed.

''For about a generation, we have depended upon a 'push' system, in which federal agencies, and state and local authorities, have shared data with us on persons of particular concern to us,'' Moss said. ''We're going to try to go to a system where basically, we 'pull' data from other databases.''

''I think we have a good system right now,'' Moss said. ''Can it get better? Yes.''

But senators said that the government should have better screening systems in place nearly four years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

''This looks like a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,'' said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. ''There is no longer any excuse for bureaucracy standing in the way of national security.''