US Passport Issuance: Closing the Door to Fraud?

GAO’s Jess Ford and State’s DAS Sprague on Hill’s Witness List

From 2000-2009, the GAO has written about 30 reports on visas and passports as they relate to border and homeland security. The earliest one I could locate that directly addressed passport issues is GAO-05-477 dated May 20, 2005 (State Department: Improvements Needed to Strengthen U.S. Passport Fraud Detection Efforts). In this report the GAO recommended that “the Secretary of State consider ways to improve interagency information sharing, establish a centralized and up-to-date fraud prevention library, consider augmenting fraud prevention staffing, assess the extent to which interoffice workload transfers may hinder fraud prevention, and strengthen fraud prevention training and oversight. There was a follow-up report on June 29, 2005 (GAO-05-853T: State Department: Improvements Needed to Strengthen U.S. Passport Fraud Detection Efforts) and a few more reports since then.

I am not at all surprised that Jess T. Ford, the Director of International Affairs and Trade at the GAO sounded a bit cautious during the recent
hearing on passport vulnerabilities, saying that:

“State officials have known about vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process for many years but have failed to effectively address these vulnerabilities. Although State has proposed reasonable oversight measures for passport acceptance facilities in response to our prior recommendations, it is too early to determine whether these measures will be effective.”

The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, Brenda S. Sprague appeared at the same hearing
saying that “We take seriously our responsibility to protect U.S. borders and the integrity of the U.S. passport through vigilant adjudication.”

She reported on the response taken by State to address the most recent GAO report and also on the creation of an Adjudication Policy and Process Review Working Group in mid-March to help further identify necessary improvements. This Working Group consists of five subgroups, which are:

• Restructuring of Adjudication Process and Oversight – This subgroup is reviewing the current adjudication program and working on recommendations to restructure our processes. Additionally, the subgroup is working on recommendations for a new adjudicative managerial oversight program.

• Adjudication Requirements and Standards – This subgroup is developing standardized desk and counter adjudication procedures. Additionally, it is developing standardized procedures for Passport Specialists regarding the use of the Social Security Number (SSN) and other commercial databases.

• Post-Issuance Audit – This subgroup is developing a statistically valid audit process for previously issued passports. The results from this audit will be used for future training purposes.

• Training Initiatives – This subgroup is identifying enhancements for fraud training for all Passport Specialists, Supervisors, and Fraud Prevention Managers (FPMs). It is reviewing the curriculum of the National Training Program (NTP), which we use for training our new employees, to ensure that it appropriately and thoroughly addresses the document verification requirements used by Passport Specialists. Also, the subgroup is identifying and recommending standard requirements for on-the-job training for new hires once they complete NTP and begin working with “live” (unapproved) applications. Additionally, it is developing standardized fraud awareness training for our courthouse and post office acceptance facilities.

• Technology – This subgroup is identifying technical and procedural vulnerabilities to the integrity of the passport process. Additionally, it is working on recommendations for improvement to our automated systems through access to additional databases.

Sprague also revealed that “prior to the GAO undercover test, CA officials had held ongoing meetings with federal and state government agencies regarding access to information and databases for citizenship and identity verification. As a result of the GAO’s recent recommendation, I also sent a letter to all State Registrars asking for their assistance in providing the Department access to their birth and death records for verification purposes. We plan to vigorously continue this effort.”

Look — as far back as 2005, interagency data sharing has been pointed out as the big elephant in the room. Fast-forward to 2009 and an effective strategy on data sharing with 1) SSA, 2) State Registrars, 3) other federal agencies is still MIA. You think perhaps State need to send more than letters to get these folks attention?

Who has the authority to rope all these various fed and state agencies together and make them quit dragging their feet on this interagency process? I realized that interagency cooperation can be a slow process — but c’mon, four years down and slowwhere to go? We can do better than this post 9/11, can’t we?

You can read Mr. Ford’s full testimony
here and Ms. Sprague’s here.

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