WASHINGTON – The government's giant printing presses could soon be cranking out something in addition to the old greenback.
The Treasury Department's (search) Bureau of Engraving and Printing has gotten the go-ahead from Congress to print other countries' currencies.
A provision giving the bureau this authority is contained in a bill overhauling the country's intelligence operations. The bill is awaiting President Bush's (search) signature to become law.
Although the government wouldn't profit from such ventures, bureau director Thomas Ferguson said the experience could help it sharpen its anti-counterfeiting skills.
"It would give us an opportunity to do some interesting things that we might be able to learn from and possibly use to help us do U.S. currency (search) better," Ferguson said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Currently, though, the bureau hasn't lined up the business of any countries, Ferguson said. It plans a very low-key marketing approach.
"We'll certainly let countries know, but we're not a marketing firm. We're not a private company. We'll be available if they need us," Ferguson said.
He sees a potential target in small, developing countries that lack the technical wherewithal to produce their own currencies.
Under the bill, the bureau would have the authority to produce not only paper money but also postage stamps and other so-called "security" documents such as drivers licenses and passports for foreign governments.
The bureau, however, would need to make sure such potential projects are OK with the Treasury Department in terms of not interfering with U.S. production of greenbacks, and the State Department, which would determine if a given project was consistent with U.S. foreign policy.
Over the years, the bureau has had to turn down requests by countries, including Turkey, South Africa and Kuwait, for various printing projects because it lacked the necessary authority, government officials said.
After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was ousted and Iraq's economy was being rebuilt, a British company, De La Rue, snagged the contract to print the new Iraqi dinar.
"In 2003, U.S. taxpayers paid a foreign printing company approximately $80 million to produce the new Iraqi currency," Brian Roseboro, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for domestic finance, told a House committee in September.
Even if the bureau had the authority at the time, the contract was so large that the bureau might only have been able to produce a portion of what was needed, Ferguson said. The bureau, he said, has been trying to get authority from Congress to print other countries' currencies for at least four years.
There have been a few times in the bureau's history that under special circumstances it has printed currencies for other governments, Ferguson said. Those instances include the Philippines in 1928, and Cuba in 1934.
The United States Mint, which makes U.S. coins, does have the authority to make coins for other countries, but it isn't presently doing so, officials said. It's last project, for Panama, ended in 1984, officials said.
Allen Mincho, a director of Heritage-Currency Auctions of America, a coin and currency dealer and auctioneer, agreed with Ferguson that the biggest benefit of the United States printing other countries' currency would be to improve anti-counterfeiting techniques.
"The bottom line is the more that they print in different colors, which is popular in other countries, and the more advanced anti-counterfeiting devices they employ the better their learning curve is going to be when they incorporate that stuff into U.S. currency," he said.
To thwart counterfeiters, the United States has issued new $20 and $50 bills that sport different colors and include various security features. A new, colorful $10 is expected out next year. Plans also are under way to redo the $100 bill — the most knocked-off note outside the United States.
The bureau churns out over 8 billion U.S. notes a year in Washington and Fort Worth, Texas. They are shipped to the Federal Reserve banks, which supply the nation's cash.
"Our main function has been and always will be primarily and foremost U.S. currency," Ferguson said. "We would never allow this to interfere with our providing the Federal Reserve with the quality and the quantity of currency it needs."