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U.S. to Use Interpol Passport Database for Screening

Washington Post | May 06, 2007 
Spencer S. Hsu

The Department of Homeland Security will begin using an Interpol database of stolen passports to screen foreign travelers later this year and is exploring whether to set up a unit at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, that would investigate any stolen documents the screeners turn up, officials said yesterday.

DHS expects to launch a 30-day pilot of the screening system at one U.S. airport by fall and, if it is successful, will expand the program nationwide immediately thereafter, department officials said.

After a meeting with DHS Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said Friday that he also asked U.S. officials to consider encouraging other nations to support a port and border security unit for following up on reports of stolen passports.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the apparent enthusiasm in DHS for integrating this system as soon as possible," said Noble, who has advocated use of the database for six years. "I didn't feel such enthusiasm before and I hope we'll get it done."

Security officials have long regarded stolen travel documents as a virtual weapon in the hands of potential terrorists. They are particularly worried about the theft of blank passports that can be used to produce counterfeit versions and enable terrorists to cross international frontiers with little scrutiny.

They cite the case of Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef entered the United States carrying a stolen Iraqi passport and seeking asylum. More recently, Mexican authorities in January arrested 11 Iraqis in Monterrey on their way to claim asylum in the United States. The group had eight passports that were among a batch of 850 passports stolen from Cyprus in 2003.

Investigators later found those passports used in seven other countries, including by other Iraqis, none known to be terrorists.

U.S. officials express particular concern about passports stolen from 27 friendly countries that participate in a program under which travelers can visit the United States without visas.

At a hearing last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the visa-waiver program "the soft underbelly of this nation," adding that the predominance of stolen passports and the sloppy administration of the program "places this nation in serious jeopardy."

Since 2001, Interpol has amassed a database of 6.7 million lost or stolen passports, including 2.8 million from visa-waiver countries. Through bilateral arrangements, DHS has access to 4.3 million records of stolen passports.

In a test of 1.9 million passport records collected over 16 days by U.S. border officials in April, DHS personnel discovered 273 stolen documents using the Interpol data. Analysts cleared 219 cases, but 64 remained unresolved, a senior U.S. homeland security official said.

"This data will provide another tool for front-line [Customs and Border Patrol] personnel in making admissibility decisions," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said.

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