In October 2018, State/OIG issued a Review of Allegations of Improper Passport Seizures at Embassy Sana’a, Yemen. The report indicates that the “Department did not follow relevant standards” and that ” officials did not comply fully with required procedures.” OIG said that “Department also failed to comply with relevant standards when it ultimately revoked the passports in all but one of the cases OIG examined:
The Department does not have a central system to track passport confiscations or retentions. As a result, OIG could not determine the number of passport seizures that occurred at Embassy Sana’a from 2012 to 2014, and the total number remains uncertain. However, because one document provided by the Department contained a list of 31 names with dates on which the passports were taken, OIG focused on these cases.
There are two bases in Department regulations that govern its authority to take passports from U.S. citizens: “retention” and “confiscation.” Regardless of the authority by which the Department took the passports at issue here, the Department did not follow relevant standards. If the Department “retained” the passports, officials did not comply fully with required procedures. Furthermore, although the Department acknowledged that retentions are temporary measures, it held many of the passports in question for months (and in some cases, over a year), suggesting that the Department effectively confiscated these documents. Confiscation is permitted only after revocation or pursuant to an arrest. Revocation is the formal process by which the Department invalidates an individual’s passport. Neither an arrest nor revocation occurred before any of the passports were taken.
The Department also failed to comply with relevant standards when it ultimately revoked the passports in all but one of the cases OIG examined. Although the Department must notify the holders in writing of the reason for revocation and their right to appeal, OIG could not confirm that these notices were sent in every case. Even if notices were sent, the affected individuals remained uninformed about the status of their passports for lengthy periods (in one case, almost 2 years). OIG also identified instances where individuals contacted the Department with questions and received limited information or no response at all.
OIG also identified other concerns. First, the lack of a single legal authority within the Department led to significant difficulties in resolving key legal issues. Second, although the Department has updated its policies, issues remain unresolved, including conflicting interpretations of the Department’s authority to seize passports and uncertainty regarding eligibility for limited validity passports.
On October 20, 2021 — that’s right, three years later this month — the State Department/Diplomatic Security finally updated 12 FAM 220 of the Foreign Affairs Manual on the recovery and seizure of U.S. passports. The notation on the change transmittal says “Updated as a result of the Office of the Inspector General report on Yemen Passport Seizures”. The bold parts are highlighted in the FAM.
12 FAM 224.1-5 Recovery and Seizure of Passports
a. 22 CFR 51.7 (a) states that a passport at all times remains the property of the United States and must be returned to the U.S. Government upon demand.
b. CA/FPP or CA/PPT may request DS confiscate a passport that CA/PPT issued. See 12 FAH-4 H-124.2. The Department’s authorized representative (usually the case agent) is authorized to confiscate a revoked passport. If the bearer refuses to do so, CA/PPT may invalidate the passport by notifying the bearer in writing of the invalidation (22 CFR 51.4).4
c. Only CA/PPT/S/A may revoke U.S. passports. DS agents may lawfully seize a U.S. passport pursuant to:
(1) A search warrant;
(2) An arrest warrant;
(3) A lawful, warrantless seizure pursuant to a warrant exception when robable cause exists that the U.S. passport itself is evidence of a crime;
(4) The express consent of the subject; or
(5) A court order.
If CA intends to revoke the passport of a subject of a DS investigation, and DS has presented the case to DOJ for prosecution, the DS special agent must inform the prosecutor about the passport revocation.
d. All property acquired by DS will be collected and treated as though it were evidence to ensure proper handling until such determination is made. Special agents may only acquire property in accordance with the law as it relates to searches and seizures, judicial forfeiture, and by voluntary delivery by the owner. Occasionally, items may be seized or taken into custody for safekeeping (i.e., high value items, illegal drugs, firearms and weapons, etc.). Special agents are not authorized to acquire property in any other manner other than by direction of CA to recover U.S. passports.
e. The procedural aspects of passport seizure by a DS special agent are contained in 12 FAH-4 H-120. That section contains important information as well as relevant timelines for notification to the Department of the seizure.
f. For more information on passport revocations, see 8 FAM 804, Revocation.
g. DS may receive recovered U.S. passports from different sources, such as local law enforcement, local governments, airlines, and transportation centers. To maintain the integrity of the U.S. passport as a secure travel document, CA/PPT makes every effort to account for the final disposition of all U.S. passports. Therefore, DS should mail all found or recovered (not seized or confiscated) U.S. passports to CA/PPT at …
12 FAM 220 Investigations
- USDOJ Drops US Embassy Yemen Passport Revocation Case Sans Explanation 2016
- Coalition of Civil Rights Groups Seek State/OIG Investigation Into US Embassy Yemen’s Passport Revocations (Jan 2016)
- Why Are Court Cases Related to US Passports and Immigrant Visas in Yemen and Pakistan Sealed? (Nov 19, 2015)
- Court orders @StateDept to return Yemeni-American’s improperly revoked U.S.passport (Oct 14, 2015)
- US Embassy Yemen: Revocation of U.S. Passports, a Growing Trend?) Jan 13, 2014
- New Travel Warning for Yemen — Don’t Come; If In Country, Leave! But Some Can’t Leave 2014