By Bill Gertz, March 27, 2008
Three House leaders and the Government Printing Office’s watchdog said yesterday that they are investigating security concerns about the production of electronic passports highlighted during an investigation by The Washington Times.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the GPO for using foreign components in new electronic passports.
"It is just plain irresponsible to jeopardize the gold standard in document security by outsourcing production when U.S. companies ought to be able to do the same work here," said Mr. Thompson, who announced that his panel is investigating the outsourcing.
Rep. John D. Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak said they also are investigating the overseas production of electronic passports. The two Michigan Democrats said they are looking into whether profits made by the GPO through selling blank passports to the State Department may have violated the law limiting the GPO’s business practices.
The Times reported yesterday that the GPO chose two European computer chip makers over U.S. manufacturers to make tens of millions of electronic passports. The passports are being assembled in Thailand by one company that was a victim of Chinese economic espionage.
"If true, these allegations raised in today’s press reports are extremely serious not only to the integrity of our e-Passport program, but also to our national security," said Mr. Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Mr. Stupak, chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said, "Given all of the personal information contained in an e-passport, it is essential that the entire production chain be secure and free from potential tampering."
Mr. Dingell and Mr. Stupak said in a letter yesterday to GPO Inspector General J. Anthony Ogden and Public Printer Robert Tapella that they are investigating the management, production and distribution of electronic passports.
Mr. Thompson, commenting on a report in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times, said in a statement that the credibility of U.S. passports is "of the utmost importance to our homeland security."
"Questions alone about the production and chain of custody of blank U.S. passports can send shock waves through our homeland security infrastructure," he said. "The Committee on Homeland Security will use all of the tools available to determine if American technologies are being overlooked and what implications there might be for other border security documents and technologies."
Mr. Ogden earlier said his office is conducting an "end-to-end" review of the agency’s production of electronic passports and will look into the outsourcing of some passport components, such as computer chips embedded in travel documents.
"We do pay close attention to the issue of passport manufacturing. It is a high priority of this office," Mr. Ogden said in an interview.
Mr. Ogden said his office’s current work plan includes the review "to help improve the process of manufacturing passports. That’s no secret."
One of the companies involved in passport production in Thailand, Smartrac, charged in a court filing in the Netherlands last year that its technology was stolen by China.
The company issued a statement yesterday saying its passport assembly plant was secure, CNN reported.
The outsourcing has raised concerns among investigators over the security of passports. GPO and State Department officials have sought to play down security concerns and have said they conduct regular checks of overseas manufacturers.
Mr. Ogden said deficiencies in passport manufacturing detailed in an Oct. 12 report cited by the paper were related to older, non-electronic passports.
He declined to specify the deficiencies but said the agency has been responsive in addressing many of the problems.