As an armada of ships, planes and helicopters combed the waters south of Vietnam on Monday for any sign of a missing Malaysia airliner, aviation-safety experts said the discovery that two passengers aboard the plane were traveling on stolen passports has revealed a major gap in airline-security procedures developed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Since Interpol created a database of stolen and lost passports in 2002, the international repository has grown to more than 40 million documents available for governments to screen for terrorists, smugglers or swindlers who travel the world illicitly. But according to the international law-enforcement agency, only three countries — the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — systematically screen travelers against the database of stolen passports.
The two men with stolen passports who boarded the missing Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing over the weekend did not have their passports screened. Last year, Interpol said, passengers around the world were able to board planes more than 1 billion times without having their passports checked against the database. “This is a situation we had hoped never to see,” Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary-general said Sunday from the organization’s headquarters in Lyon, France. “For years, Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates.”
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One of the many vexing mysteries of the plane’s disappearance was the hunt for the true identity of the two passengers who used passports stolen from European tourists in Thailand in the past two years. Law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials said Monday that the stolen passports might not have had anything to do with what happened to the jet. But even if so, they said the episode has cast a spotlight on a flaw in security defenses built over the past decade to counter illicit travel and illegal trafficking of people, drugs and other contraband.
Governments around the world have spent vast sums in the past decade to apply watermarks in passport books and encrypt authenticating information in the documents, all in efforts to combat increasingly sophisticated passport-theft rings and forgers, the authorities said Monday. But the great majority of Interpol’s member nations still have not integrated the agency’s database of stolen passports beyond a central national office in each country — an office that can check a passport upon specific request or in an emergency, as member nations did after Malaysia Airlines published the passenger manifest of Flight MH370.
Some authorities said Monday that a perception persists among some aviation officials that integrating Interpol’s database of stolen passports would be a costly, cumbersome process, a characterization that Interpol officials disputed Monday. “It’s a nominal cost,” said one Interpol official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of agency protocol. “We’re not talking millions here.”
The official said Interpol was also willing to offer technical assistance to any member country that requested it.
“Whether or not this eventually involves terrorism, this incident has certainly brought to light an area of potential vulnerability on a global scale,” said Mark Dombroff, a former Justice Department official who is now a partner specializing in aviation issues in the Washington office of the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.
U.S. investigators have repeatedly warned about the inability or unwillingness of foreign partners to address the use of fraudulent travel documents.
“In many countries, fraudulent travel documents, including fraudulent passports and visas, are easy to obtain, and could thereby be used by people who want to travel under a false identity,” said a June 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
The report noted that the problem is common in Kenya, “where individuals with a similar appearance to a Somali-American with a legitimate travel document will fraudulently use this travel document for illicit travel.”
In addition, the report said, some countries’ failure to consistently report lost or stolen travel documents or access Interpol’s database of purloined passports “can facilitate the use of legitimate passports by impostors.”
The GAO, citing State Department data, said in a May 2003 report that “the theft and forgery of passports in Belgium facilitated terrorists’ ability to travel freely.”
WikiLeaks cables are replete with examples of U.S. diplomats abroad warning of the dangers of fraudulent travel documents. “Taiwan authorities have repeatedly raised the issue of the rapid growth in the number of lost/stolen Taiwan passports,” said one cable in 2006, noting that those passports “are becoming the travel document of choice among globe-trotting criminals.”
Interpol’s database of stolen passports — one of 14 databases it operates — has grown from a few thousand passports and searches in 2002 to more than 40 million documents submitted from 167 countries, and more than 800 million searches per year. According to the agency, the United States searches this database annually more than 250 million times, Britain more than 120 million times, and the UAE more than 50 million times.
The Interpol database provides results, the agency said in Noble’s statement, averaging 60,000 annual “hits,” matches of passports presented at airports or other ports of entry against the documents filed with the organization by member nations.
Many of those are individuals who have reported their passports lost or stolen, found them again and used them, Interpol officials said. But the database has played a role in the arrest of many criminal fugitives and terror suspects, Interpol officials said.
In December, a 45-year-old American was taken into custody at Manila’s international airport after his passport was run against Interpol’s databases and set off an alert as part of security operations surrounding the Southeast Games in Myanmar, according to Interpol’s website. The agency did not identify the American.
In March 2011, a citizen of the Maldives wanted in connection with a 2007 terrorist bombing was arrested less than six hours after his passport triggered an Interpol alarm as he traveled from Pakistan to the Maldives via Sri Lanka.
“If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol’s database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH 370,” Noble said, referring to the Malaysia Airlines flight. “We would know that stolen passports were not used by any of the passengers to board that flight.”