WASHINGTON – Although it is now harder for foreigners to obtain visas to travel to the United States,the government has not done enough to block criminal fugitives from getting passports,allowing them to flee,federal auditors found.
The Government Accountability Office ran the names of 67 state and federal fugitives through the State Department's watch list,and 37 did not trigger alerts. The State Department checks those lists before issuing passports. The report blames the problem on agencies' failures to share information.
Among the 37 were nine suspected murderers,five wanted for child sex crimes and one person on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted list,accused of murdering a Pennsylvania police chief.
The GAO revealed its findings Wednesday at a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing. Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,called the breakdown of cooperation between agencies “a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”
The State Department does not get all the names it should have from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security's terrorist watch list,said Jess T. Ford,GAO's director of international affairs and trade and the report's author.
“Therefore,many of these individuals are not listed in State's Consular Lookout and Support System name-check database for passports,and they could obtain passports and travel internationally without the knowledge of appropriate authorities,” Ford said.
The State Department's database contains the names of 50,000 of the more than 1.2 million federal,state and local fugitives in the United States – less than 5 percent. The other 95 percent could apply for and receive U.S. passports in their own names and leave the country.
“The information-sharing problems go beyond the shadowy world of terrorism,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins,R-Maine,the committee chairman. “Protecting the integrity of the U.S. passport is essential to protecting our citizens from those who would do us harm,whether they are terrorists or other criminals.”
The report also addressed using fabricated documents or identity theft to get passports,which accounted for 69 percent of passport fraud detected in 2004.
“Possession of a U.S. passport is important because it allows an individual to prove two things: United States citizenship and identity,” said Michael Johnson,an 18-year veteran of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Johnson said fusing the lists of all agencies would only solve part of the problem. He said disbanding organized document forgers,who sell birth certificates and other proof of citizenship for as much as $6,000 should be as high a priority.
The problem reaches beyond illegal immigrants seeking refuge in the United States,Johnson said. “Passport fraud is being increasingly used to further a variety of other crimes,both violent and non-violent,such as drug-trafficking,money laundering and Social Security fraud,” he said.
In 2004,500 people were arrested for passport fraud,about 300 of whom were convicted.
“It would be relatively simple” to obtain forged documents,Johnson said in response to a question from Collins.