The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Interpol set up a huge database to track stolen passports in 2002. Almost no one uses it.

Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble, second from right, speaks during a news conference at the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, on March 11. (Robert Pratta/Reuters)
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News that two Iranian men were able to board Malaysia  Airlines flight MH370 last weekend using stolen passports sparked a frenzy of speculation about whether they may have played a role in bringing the plane down.

Officials have since cast doubt on that possibility, saying the men had no known links to terrorist groups. But the ease with which they managed to board the flight has drawn attention to lax security procedures that enable people in many countries to routinely board international flights using other people’s documents.

It’s a security gap that Interpol, the international law enforcement organization, sought to close in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, by building a database of stolen travel documents. Interpol leaders hoped that governments and airlines around the world would be able to feed into, and consult, the database systemically in a matter of years.

Only a handful today do.

“We have a real-world case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said in a statement issued earlier this week.

Interpol says that last year, travelers boarded flights more than a billion times without having their passport numbers run through the database.

That raises a key question: Are U.S. flights today safe against this kind of fraud? For the most part, yes, argued Jayson P. Ahern, a former chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that screens passengers arriving on international flights.

After the September 11 attacks, Washington invested heavily in automated passenger screening systems that check flight manifests against databases of suspected terrorists and stolen travel documents before planes are cleared to take off. Checks are conducted 72 hours before the scheduled departure time and then again 30 minutes before takeoff.

“The U.S. has a very robust system for looking at these kinds of things,” said Ahern, who now works as a homeland security adviser at the Chertoff Group.

In addition to the database checks, international travelers have their fingerprints scanned by a machine upon arrival at U.S. airports — an additional safeguard to ensure that the prints of the person seeking admission match the ones collected when the traveler’s visa was issued.

So why haven't other countries adopted similarly stringent security protocols? Mainly cost, said Ahern, and differing assessments of the threat passengers traveling with fake documents pose.

“As much as the U.S. would want to raise everyone’s standards, it’s not always welcome by partnering nations,” he said.