U.S. allies whose citizens don’t need visas to visit the United States would be encouraged to check all their travelers for lost or stolen passports under legislation a key House member said Friday she is drafting.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., the head of the Homeland Security subcommittee on border security, said legislation is needed after the discovery that two passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 were traveling on stolen passports from Italy and Austria.
Although nothing has linked those two to terrorism, Miller said better security is needed to thwart possible hijackings.
“It certainly highlights a vulnerability in aviation systems abroad,” Miller said at a hearing on passport fraud.
Interpol, the international criminal police organization that has 190 member countries, tracks lost and stolen passports in a database created after Sept. 11, 2001. Interpol has 40 million reports of lost or stolen passports, the vast bulk reported by the 38 countries whose citizens don’t need visas to visit the United States, such as Canada and European nations.
About 300,000 U.S. passports per year are reported lost or stolen, for a total of 3.2 million since the United States joined the Interpol program in 2004, according to the State Department.
Shawn Bray, director of the Justice Department’s Interpol office in Washington, said there were 238 million passport inquiries through his office last year. The inquiries generated 25,000 concerns, most of which were routine, such as a traveler not updating their biographical information.
But Bray cited two cases last year where something more was found. A Gambian national attempting to travel to New York on a U.S. passport was discovered in Spain, which is investigating. An Iranian national traveling in Bulgaria on a U.S. passport was arrested and the passport recovered in Sofia.
Bray said the United States embraces the Interpol’s lost-or-stolen passport program as a critical part of the strategy to combat illicit international travel.
But some of the most populous countries â?? China, India and Indonesia â?? don’t participate in the Interpol program. And only three countries â?? the United States, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates â?? routinely check every airline traveler against Interpol’s database.
Miller didn’t detail how legislation would encourage countries to participate, such as through technical support. While all passports are scrutinized on flights arriving in the USA from overseas, she said friendly countries should enhance passport screening in their own countries.
“If you make it hard for terrorists to cross our borders without being detected, future acts of terrorism hopefully can be prevented,” Miller said. “We need to look at what types of things we could do perhaps to incentivize others to improve a bit.”
Administration officials were non-committal about requiring countries to consult Interpol for passport screening of their own domestic flights.
“It’s an important question,” said Alan Bersin, chief diplomatic officer for the Department of Homeland Security. “But I don’t think the answer is a straightforward yes.”
Federal officials said other countries may have agencies that don’t share data about passports or they may have bureaucratic hurdles, such as reporting lost documents at local police stations rather than at the federal level.
“It really becomes a technology and resource issue,” said John Wagner, acting deputy assistant commission for Customs and Border Protection.
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