Effect Measure
March 30, 2008

Homeland security is a priority for the Bush administration. I know that because they keep telling us. We have to take off our shes and take out our identification getting on and off planes. Not just any identification, either. Official stuff. And crossing borders — any borders, even the border from Canada — now requires a passport. A passport! Perhaps one of the most highly prized and secure of all official forms of identification, too, now embedded with electronic chips. Even blank passports are expensive, and we are charged for them — $100, up from $60 ten years ago. Which makes perfect sense. But it’s one of the few things about passport production that does make sense. Because it turns out that it is cheaper to make them in foreign countries like Thailand than in the US, so the State Department has been outsourcing printing of blank passports and pocketing the estimated $100 million yearly that is the difference between what they charge and what they cost. But that’s not the main issue. The main issue is security:

The United States has outsourced the manufacturing of its electronic passports to overseas companies — including one in Thailand that was victimized by Chinese espionage — raising concerns that cost savings are being put ahead of national security, an investigation by The Washington Times has found.


Officials at GPO [he Government Printing Office], the Homeland Security Department and the State Department played down such concerns, saying they are confident that regular audits and other protections already in place will keep terrorists and foreign spies from stealing or copying the sensitive components to make fake passports.

"Aside from the fact that we have fully vetted and qualified vendors, we also note that the materials are moved via a secure transportation means, including armored vehicles," GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said. (Washington Times, hat tip Boingboing)

I thought I was pretty jaded when it came to Bush administration incompetence but this takes the cake. They outsourced both the printing and the manufacture of the small embedded computer chips. These were the small chips, remember, the Bush administration claimed it needed to prevent counterfeiting. Stored information, like ID and passport number, is transmitted through a small transmitter in the chip to the passport officer at border entry points. But the chips themselves are supplied by foreign suppliers and inserted in blank passports outside the US:

After the computer chips are inserted into the back cover of the passports in Europe, the blank covers are shipped to a factory in Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, to be fitted with a wire Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, antenna. The blank passports eventually are transported to Washington for final binding, according to the documents and interviews.

The stop in Thailand raises its own security concerns. The Southeast Asian country has battled social instability and terror threats. Anti-government groups backed by Islamists, including al Qaeda, have carried out attacks in southern Thailand and the Thai military took over in a coup in September 2006.

The Netherlands-based company that assembles the U.S. e-passport covers in Thailand, Smartrac Technology Ltd., warned in its latest annual report that, in a worst-case scenario, social unrest in Thailand could lead to a halt in production.

Smartrac divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips, raising additional questions about the security of America’s e-passports.

Had enough? No? How about sending unsecure FedEx services for the blank passports to the State Department offices? When it was pointed out that this maybe wasn’t the most secure method, the State Department began to use armored cars. They wanted to use foreign armored car services but finally someone with half a brain in the State Department objected.

So here’s the bottom line. The Bush administration outsourced to multiple foreign companies the production of blank US passports complete with embedded computer chips and shipped them without proper safeguards back to Washington, where the State Department proposed to use contract security guards to protect them.

And the money? They charge you and me $100 but it only costs the GPO $7.97. They in turn charge the State Department $14.80 for each blank (possibly compromised) passport. And the difference — $85 — the GPO keeps. It is using a portion of this money to build a production facility in the US. But most of the money is GPO profit, a violation of the letter and the spirit of the law, which mandates charges only to cover costs. In essence the extra money is a tax.

So what does the Bush administration always do when confronted with an impropriety, not to mention an illegality? They just say they have determined it isn’t either one:

Like the security concerns, GPO officials brush aside questions about the profits. Agency officials declined a request from The Times to provide an exact accounting of its e-passport costs and revenues, saying only it would not be accurate to claim it has earned the large profits indicated by the documents showing the difference between the manufacturing costs and the State Department fees.

Questioned about its own annual report showing a $90 million-plus profit on e-passports in fiscal year 2007 alone, the GPO spokesman Mr. Somerset would only say that he thinks the agency is in legal compliance and that "GPO is not overcharging the State Department."

The answer to the question, "How stupid and incompetent can these people be?" can only be answered this way: "Much stupider and much more incompetent than almost any body could possibly imagine."

The only conclusion I can come to is this. While they keep talking about the grave threat we face from terrorists in fact they don’t really believe it and probably know most of it is a convenient (although incredibly costly) fiction. Otherwise why would they so consistently behave with such careless nonchalance about issues even I can see are a security problem?

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