Terror Risk Confronting Airlines and Countries

June 13th, 2011

The most critical breach of security that airlines are faced with today is not the passengers who might smuggle weapons or explosives onto planes,  but rather, the passengers who have cleared the Nation’s document screening process with a fraudulently obtained passport or other international identity document.  Interpol‘s Secretary General, Ronald Noble, made this admission while speaking at the summit of the International Air Transport Association in Singapore this month.  “The number one risk confronting airlines and countries around the world is the risk that terrorists or other dangerous persons will carry a fraudulent identity document and move from one country to another.”   

Last year, 490 million passports were screened, and 40,000 of those passports were listed in Interpol’s database as lost or stolen.  Adding to these astonishing facts is the revelation that the 40,000 thousand passports flagged by Interpol as being stolen or lost were being carried by persons attempting to travel internationally.    As a reminder, Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, entered the country carrying a stolen Iraqi passport.   Additionally, one out of every two passports that is being used to travel internationally is not being screened, which means that a staggering 500 million travelers per year are not required to have their passports screened or authenticated.

Further, Interpol reports there are approximately 28 million fraudulent passports and other international documents in circulation today.    Wait a minute!  Is it not true that every airline passenger traveling today goes through an extensive screening process at the airports?  I was recently interviewed by a reporter who posed the question of airport security to me, highlighting the fact that he witnessed a television news report of a small toddler at the airport screaming for her mother as she was being frisked by a TSA agent.  For the record, I saw the same report, and as a parent, it was not easy to watch.  My reply to the reporter was, “We all have to endure the TSA screening process because the last thing any of us want is some terrorist slipping through security with the intention of doing our citizens or our country harm.” But  aren’t our airline passengers being put at risk if a terrorist slips through our borders with fraudulent identity?  After all, a thorough examination of a passport or document is far less invasive than a pat down or frisks at the airport.  Just recently, the U.S Attorney’s Office for the State of Maryland handed down a multiple count indictment on a University of Maryland college student for allegedly producing fraudulent driver’s licenses for other students on campus and probably anyone else who could come up with $150.00 to cover his expenses.   One reporter who covered this story inquired as to why the federal government was coming down so hard on the UMD college student.  Well, given the fact that a driver’s license is one of the key documents you may have to produce in order to acquire a passport, you can believe that the issue of fraudulently obtained passports was a critical factor in the U.S Attorney’s decision. 

In light of Interpol’s release of this sobering terrorist threat, the Department of Homeland Security reported in 2007 that it would initiate plans to begin using Interpol’s database of stolen passports to screen foreign travelers.  But, if we tapped into Interpol’s database from 2007 and there remains a gap of one-half billion passports that are not being screened annually, then we must ask, where is the security gap? Interpol’s database containing the millions of stolen or lost passports has been in operation since 2005.  You may recall Mr. Noble was featured on an episode of CBS’ Sixty Minutes in 2007 where he emotionally spoke about the international community, including the United States, and its reluctance to not only use Interpol’s database for stolen passports, but to also use their vast network of resources to fight the war on terrorism.  

I spoke to a former director of a Fusion Center in the National Capitol Region, and he informed me that the Fusion Center had access to a liaison from Interpol, but not direct access to their database.  As I have indicated in prior writings, communication and collaboration are critical arsenals in our war on terrorism.  Protecting our country from those who intend to do us harm is paramount.  It is difficult to intercept terrorists after they have breached our security.  We must intensify our efforts to work to increase coordination between all federal, state, and local government agencies to identify those persons whose mission in life is to kill more Americans.  We must also continue to engage our citizens.  Now that we have been made aware of this huge problem with fraudulent passports and other official forms of identification, we encourage you to remember, “If you see something, say something.”  We are all in the fight against terror together. 

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