Official Takes Blame for Passport Mess
Sunday, July 22, 2007; 12:47 PM
WASHINGTON -- The current passport mess is rare among government foul-ups: A top federal official has publicly taken the blame and expressed regret.
"Over the past several months, many travelers who applied for a passport did not receive their document in time for their planned travel. I deeply regret that," says Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, who is in charge of U.S. passports. "I accept complete responsibility for this."
The government started requiring more Americans to have passports on Jan. 23 in an effort to thwart terrorism. By summer, more than 2 million people were waiting for passports; half a million had waited more than three months since applying for a document that typically was ready in six weeks.
The massive backlog destroyed summer vacations, ruined wedding and honeymoon plans and disrupted business meetings and education plans. People lost work days waiting in lines or thousands of dollars in nonrefundable travel deposits.
Members of Congress were inundated with pleas from constituents for help. Requests to lawmakers soared from dozens a year to hundreds a month in many offices.
Some in Congress wonder if the effort has not hurt security. Others question whether more passports contribute much to security.
The sorry episode originated three years ago with the final report of the Sept. 11 commission. "For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons," the report said.
The commission noted that Americans could return to the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean without passports. The report said Americans should not be exempt from having to show a passport or other secure identification when entering the U.S.
Before 2004 ended, Congress enacted this passport requirement. The Bush administration spent two years getting ready.
Last Nov. 22, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that as of Jan. 23, Americans visiting Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda by air would need passports. The requirement will not take effect for land and sea travelers until sometime between the summer of 2008 and June 2009.
The State and Homeland Security departments began a publicity blitz about the new requirement. The government even paid to run its announcement on lighted outdoor news tickers in New York to reach the national television audience for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Five passport offices were expanded and a new one opened, Harty told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month. Other offices were put on double or round-the-clock shifts.