AP photo by Alex Brandon|
Katherine Estes, right, formerly assigned to Islamabad, Pakistan, looks at a passport application with Christina Bernal, formerly at Juarez, Mexico, as they work last week to reduce the passport backlog at the New Orleans office, which serves Alabama. The staff at the nation's third largest passport processor has been beefed up with dozens of contract workers, some hired just to open the 10,000 to 30,000 applications arriving daily in the mail.
State Department official takes blame for mess with passports
By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press Writer
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.
The State Department set up a call center where people could schedule appointments nationwide and created a Web site — tinyurl.com/3a59al — where they could check the status of an application.
In 2005 and 2006, the department hired 1,366 passport adjudicators, fraud prevention workers, trainers and managers and contract support workers. An additional 1,222 have been hired so far this year.
But Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., suggested the hiring was mishandled.
He said the department planned to have 400 to 500 more full-time passport adjudicators — the key workers — by 2006. But he got Harty to acknowledge that only 290 had been added as of this month.
Harty’s office consulted with the Homeland Security Department and the travel industry, analyzed historical trends and hired the consulting company BearingPoint to conduct a study.
Based on all this research, it projected that the number of passports issued would rise from 12.1 million in 2006 to 16.2 million this year.
“We miscalculated,” Harty told Congress. Her office now estimates it is on track to issue 17.7 million this year.
The department could have reached its 16.2 million figure by adding BearingPoint’s midrange estimate that the new rules alone would produce 4.1 million new applications, according to a person familiar with the BearingPoint study, who requested anonymity because it has not be released.
But that left no allowance for normal annual growth, which has averaged 18.5 percent for the past three years.
Harty, however, attributes the miscalculation partly to poor government advertising.
“An awful lot of people have applied who don’t need passports yet” because they are driving to Canada or Mexico, Harty said. The government’s media efforts “didn’t get the word out who actually needed a passport and who didn’t.”
Many other people are applying even though they have no travel plans — “something that we’ve never seen before” — possibly because of the national immigration debate, Harty said. “The passport is becoming something like a national ID card.”
“People are concerned they need to prove they are citizens,” for employment and to receive federal benefits, she said.
There also was a huge, unanticipated surge in applications — 5.5 million in January, February and March.
Members of Congress say Harty responded too slowly. Last October, applications began to outpace passports issued. Applications were 250,000 more than expected last November and 600,000 more than expected in January. Harty thought it was a blip until Citibank, which processes checks mailed for passports, fell way behind in late January.
Harty added 432 phone lines at the National Passport Information Center, extended its hours, raised its staff to over 400 and set up temporary phone task forces elsewhere.
Still, all that did not help Jackie Verfurth, a 41-year-old insurance company worker in Naperville, Ill. On Jan. 20, she stood in line for two hours at the post office to apply for a passport so she could fly March 23 to Paris, a trip she had dreamed of since she was 5.
“I was ready to pay the $60 fee to expedite it, but the woman there convinced me not to,” Verfurth said. “She said I’d have the passport by March 10 no matter what.”
She did not. She took off two days from work, spent eight hours dialing and waiting on the government phone line and was given more misinformation. Ultimately she forfeited a $500 travel deposit and had to give up her trip.
Even congressional offices had trouble getting accurate information for constituents. “The status provided to us was not accurate time and time again,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J.
The national information center cut training time so it could quickly add people to answer calls, but that backfired, Harty said. “Getting bad information is worse because people make plans,” she said. She ordered the training restored.
The rush to clear the backlog worries Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. “I’m not convinced we are safer as a result of these requirements,” he said. “We’ve had passports with the wrong information and a couple cases of people getting the wrong passport in the mail.”
On June 8, the government announced it would accept a government-issued photo ID and a passport application receipt from air travelers instead of a passport through Sept. 30.
In June and July, State brought volunteer diplomats home, rehired retired workers and assigned hundreds of new young diplomats to help clear the backlog.
Applications have dropped each month since February. June was the first month since last September that passports issued exceeded applications received. Harty hopes to get wait times back to six weeks by Sept. 30.
“I don’t believe it,” said Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Every objective observer seems to think the State Department’s projections are wildly unrealistic.”
Others worry the foul-up will be repeated when land and sea travelers are added, which Harty tentatively predicts will push applications to 23 million in 2008 and 30 million in 2009.
Paul Rosenzweig, an acting assistant Homeland Security secretary, believes expanded passport and secure ID requirements are crucial. Last year, 209,000 people were caught at U.S. borders with false documents or fraudulent citizenship claims.
But Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at the security firm BT Counterpane, notes that Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, the London subway bombers, and even some of the Sept. 11 terrorists did not have fake IDs.
“There’s a pervasive myth that if we only knew who everybody was, we could pick out the bad guys,” Schneier said. Instead, the key is knowing who intends to do harm, “and a better ID won’t help with that.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Save $84.50 a year off our newsstand price:
Subscribe today for only 38 cents a day!