Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, today called for toughening current passport and visa laws. Senator Feinstein also urged the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to work together, and with Interpol, to ensure that inspectors have real-time access to the lost and stolen passport database.
Senator Feinstein recently introduced legislation to toughen the laws criminalizing passport fraud and provide federal agencies with the tools they need to curtail the crime. The Passport and Visa Fraud Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). The legislation is an improved version of similar provisions originally included in the comprehensive immigration reform bill, passed by the Senate in May 2006.
The following is the prepared text of Senator Feinstein’s opening remarks at the Subcommittee hearing:
“‘For terrorists, international travel documents are as important as weapons.’ That was the conclusion of the authors of the 9/11 report over five years ago.
The 911 report pointed out that international travel presents great danger to terrorists, because “they must surface to pass through regulated channels, present themselves to border security officials, or attempt to circumvent inspection points.”
The moment that the terrorist presents a false document to border patrol inspectors is a critical moment in the protection of our borders. In that 5 minute interview at the border point, the officer must be able to determine whether the person attempting to enter the U.S. intends to harm the people of this country.
Today, there are many tools that a border inspector or the consular officer – or other government agents – can use to identify real travelers from those with bad motives. The on-going question – and the reason we are here today – is whether U.S. government agents are taking advantage of those tools.
This is a subject we come back to over and over again in this Committee. And this is a subject that is extremely important to me. I am not going to rest until I believe that the United States government is taking all the security measures it can take to interrupt terrorist travel.
The point of this hearing today is to assess where we are and where the government still needs to improve when it comes to document security. We cannot be complacent when it comes to this subject. The evidence has shown repeatedly that false travel documents provide a gateway for organized crime and terrorism.
As the 9/11 Commission report demonstrates, individuals with fraudulent documents can pose a far greater threat to our national security than those traveling with no documents at all.
We know, for example, that at least two of the 9/11 hijackers used passports that were altered when they entered this country and as many as 15 of the 19 hijackers had some other irregularity with their travel documents.
And in the five years since 9/11, of the 353 individuals who the Department of Justice classified and prosecuted as ‘international terrorists,’ 24 were charged with document crimes.
For example, in September 2005, Muhammad Khalil was convicted on several visa fraud charges. Mr. Khalil was the ringleader of a massive visa fraud scheme operating out of a mosque he established in a Brooklyn basement.
Over a ten year period, Khalil sponsored over 200 fraudulent applications for individuals seeking religious work visas to enter the United States, charging cash fees ranging from $5,000 to $8,000. Prosecutors claimed that he had netted more than $600,000 from the scheme.
Although Khalil has not been linked to specific terrorist activities, prosecutors pointed to a taped conversation in which Khalil reportedly praised Osama bin Laden and called for Muslims to ‘arm themselves’ for ‘another attack.’
In another case, defendants Cedric Carpenter and Lamont Ranson were prosecuted and sentenced in Mississippi for conspiring to sell false documents to individuals they believed were members of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippines-based group designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
In my own home state of California, seven counterfeit document mills in Los Angeles were seized on March 30, 2006. ICE agents arrested 11 individuals on charges of supplying a significant number of the fraudulent identity and immigration documents being sold on the streets of Los Angeles.
And just this past December, the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service charged 25 defendants in Los Angeles for attempting to obtain or actually obtaining U.S. passports using fake identities.
Today, over five years later, Interpol reports that they have records of more than 14 million stolen and lost travel documents from 123 different countries. These are only the ones we know about.
Interpol estimates that 30 to 40 million travel documents have been stolen worldwide.
We know that over the past few years, passport and visa forgery has become more sophisticated thanks to new technology. In the past, the tools of the counterfeit document trade were typewriters and pieces of plastic.
Today's document forgers use computer software and high-resolution digital scanners to ply their trade. Criminal organizations are also using the Internet to market and distribute fake documents and immigration benefits to customers.
News articles document that passport and visa fraud has become so lucrative that gangs are offering franchises in the multimillion-dollar scam to forgers.
Unfortunately, it’s not only foreign passports that can be forged. Forged and fraudulent United States passports can be the most dangerous when in the wrong hands.
With a U.S. passport, criminals can establish American citizenship and have unlimited access to virtually every country in the world.
It’s no surprise, then, that passport and visa fraud are often linked to other, very serious crimes in the United States and abroad: narcotics trafficking, organized crimes, money laundering, human trafficking, and identity theft.
Despite evidence that these crimes are widespread and that millions of travel documents are on the black market, in 2004, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service reports that it made about 500 arrests for passport fraud, with only 300 convictions.
For these reasons, I believe that our job is not over. Senator Sessions and I have introduced a bill to strengthen current passport and visa laws in a number of key ways. Our bill would create strong penalties to punish those who traffic in fraudulent travel documents. The current law makes no distinction between those caught with multiple false travel documents - the very worst offenders who are often part of organized crime rings – and those with only one false document. Our bill would change that.
Our bill also adds provisions to the current passport and visa fraud laws to ensure that conspiracies and attempts to commit these crimes are investigated and prosecuted just as vigorously as the completed crime.
Currently, offenders who engage in passport or visa fraud generally serve less than a year imprisonment, providing little incentive for U.S. Attorney’s Offices to expend scarce resources in prosecuting these crimes.
This bill provides much needed reform. It strengthens the penalties against people using documents to illegally gain entry to this country and empowers the agents and prosecutors who enforce our borders to take swift and strong action against these criminals. I hope that my colleagues will join Senator Session and me in co-sponsoring this important legislation.
But legislation is not enough. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department must work together and with Interpol to ensure that the frontline inspectors – those at airports and at consular offices – have real-time access to the lost and stolen passport database.
The inspectors must be trained to use this database to ensure that no one carrying a stolen passport is allowed into this country.
The U.S. government must also work on a global scale with other countries to ensure that all international travel documents meet certain minimum standards.
I do not believe that we can truly address the 9/11 Commission recommendations unless we include a provision that impacts the tools that terrorists use to infiltrate our country. Internationally and in the United States, constraining terrorist travel must become a vital part of our counterterrorism strategy.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the progress made by the U.S. government in this important area and to hear where we still need to improve.