State Department Makes Changes After GAO Investigator Falsely Obtains Passports

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

The State Department has taken steps to tighten controls after an undercover investigator for the Government Accountability Office was able last month to obtain two U.S. passports by using bogus information.

In one case, the investigator used the Social Security number of a man who died in 1965. In the other, the investigator used the Social Security number of a 5-year-old while claiming on his application that he was 53.

State Department officials "agreed that our investigation exposed a major vulnerability in the department's passport issuance process and acknowledged that they have issued other fraudulently obtained passports in the past," the GAO said in a report released this week. In all, the GAO's undercover investigator last month "was easily able to obtain four genuine U.S. passports using counterfeit or fraudulently obtained documents," the agency asserted.

This was not the first time the GAO has reported weaknesses in the passport issuance process when Social Security numbers were used to help prove identity. In 2005, the GAO reported that people were able to use fraudulent Social Security numbers in part because the information that State received from the Social Security Administration was "limited and outdated." A memorandum on sharing information between the two agencies signed in April 2004 had not been implemented as of March 2005, and it did not include access to Social Security's death records.

Another GAO investigation resulted in July 2007 recommendations that State "address weaknesses in the oversight of passport acceptance facilities," about 9,000 of which are located across the country primarily at U.S. Postal Service sites, as well as in courthouses and other institutions.

In the wake of last month's GAO investigation, State suspended the adjudication authority of the four passport specialists who approved the phony applications. An audit of their past work is underway, and they are being given additional training. State also stopped accepting passport applications from the Postal Service facilities that accepted the false ID information and again is providing additional fraud training.

State is also getting a subscription to the "Death Master File," which every week updates reports of deaths as recorded by the Social Security Administration. In addition, State is working to get access to motor vehicle and birth and death records from all 50 states. According to the GAO, access to those records would have allowed passport specialists to detect all four counterfeit birth certificates.

A State Department spokesman said yesterday that the GAO "certainly opened our eyes to problems," adding that, along with other steps, the department is looking to add a facial recognition system for passport applicants that is now in use overseas for those seeking visas to enter the United States.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company