April 06, 2011

INTRODUCTION OF THE PASSPORT IDENTITY VERIFICATION ACT

Mr. CARDIN.  Mr. President, this weekend I know that Marylanders will be taking advantage of Passport Day this Saturday, April 9.  During these weekend hours at our passport acceptance facilities in Maryland, my constituents will have the ability to renew their passports or apply for a new passport, as we get ready for the summer travel season.

        When Marylanders apply for and ultimately receive their passports, I want them to continue to have confidence that the U.S. passport is the gold standard for identification.  It certifies an individual’s identity and U.S. citizenship, and allows the passport holder to travel in and out of the United States and to foreign countries.  It allows the passport holder to obtain further identification documents, and to set up bank accounts.

        The U.S. Government simply cannot allow U.S. passports to be issued in this country on the basis of fraudulent documents.  There is too much at stake.  Unfortunately, hearings that I have chaired in the last Congress have convinced me that we have serious vulnerabilities in our passport issuance process that need to be closed quickly.

    Nearly two years ago, on May 5, 2009, I chaired a Judiciary Terrorism Subcommittee hearing entitled “The Passport Issuance Process: Closing the Door to Fraud.”  During the hearing last year, we learned about a Government Accountability Office (GAO) undercover investigation that had been requested by Senators Kyl and Feinstein to test the effectiveness of the passport issuance process, and to determine whether malicious individuals such as terrorists, spies, or other criminals could use counterfeit documents to obtain a genuine U.S. passport.  What we learned from GAO was that “terrorists or criminals could steal an American citizen’s identity, use basic counterfeiting skills to create fraudulent documents for that identity, and obtain a genuine U.S. passport.”  But that 2009 GAO report was not the first time that problems with the passport issuance process were identified.  In 2005 and 2007, GAO also brought these issues to light.

Vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process are very serious because it can have a profound impact on the national security of the United States.

A new GAO undercover investigation that I requested, along with Senators Kyl, Feinstein, Lieberman and Collins, also revealed that while some improvements have been made by the State Department, the passport issuance process is still susceptible to fraud.  A Judiciary Terrorism Subcommittee hearing that I chaired in July of 2010 revealed that the State Department issued five additional passports on the basis of fraudulent identity documents that had been submitted by undercover GAO agents.

As a result, today I am reintroducing the Passport Identity Verification Act, or PIVA.  This legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Feinstein, Lieberman, and Kerry.  It is a common-sense solution that will give the State Department the legal authorities that it needs to access relevant information contained in federal, state, and other databases that can be used to verify the identity of every passport applicant, and to detect passport fraud, without extending the time that the State Department takes to approve passports.  The legislation also requires the State Department to promulgate regulations to limit access to this information, and to ensure that personnel involved in the passport issuance process only access this information for authorized purposes.  These are very important privacy and security protections in this legislation.

The legislation also requires the Secretary of State to conduct a formal study examining whether biometric information and technology can be used to enhance the ability to verify the identity of a passport applicant and to detect passport fraud.

I understand that the American people can become concerned when their travel plans, whether for leisure or business, are linked to their ability to obtain a passport in a timely fashion.  My legislation would not lengthen the average amount of time it takes U.S. citizens to obtain passports.  We have got to get this right, and it is not simply a question of process, techniques, and training.  We need to make sure that the agencies that are responsible for processing passport application documents are concerned about national security as well as customer service, and we need to make sure they have the legal authorities, the resources, and the technology they need to verify the identity of a passport applicant and to detect passport fraud.

We already have much of the technology and the information to prevent such issuance of genuine U.S. passports based on fraudulent documents or information.  The Passport Identity Verification Act will dramatically improve the State Department’s ability to detect passport fraud, and strengthen the integrity of every American’s passport.

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