WASHINGTON – Her nomination to take charge of U.S. foreign aid already under fire, a senior State Department official on Tuesday assumed a share of the blame for the current passport mess.
"I can't tell you how hard we are working to overcome it," Henrietta H. Fore told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on her promotion.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty publicly took the blame at a House hearing and expressed regret for many travelers not receiving their passports in time for their trips.
"I accept complete responsibility for this," she said.
Fore, who was her boss as Undersecretary of State for Management until May, when she became acting head of the foreign assistance programs, sidestepped a suggestion by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that the passports situation was a "major failure."
Fore said she chose to describe it as "a challenge we must overcome."
"Yes," she testified, "we all bear a responsibility when we are not able to meet the needs of the American people."
But, she said, a one-third increase in applications was expected, while "the applications came in at double the rate."
To cope with the onslaught, Fore said she and others were "on the phone" bringing back retired officials to help shoulder the load and more than 600 responded.
"Everyone is trying to pitch in and I can't tell you how hard we are working," she said.
In an effort to counter terrorism, the government in January began requiring more Americans to have passports. By summer, more than 2 million people were waiting for their document, a half-million of them for more than three months.
Ordinarily, a passport is ready in six weeks.
If confirmed by the Senate, Fore promised to pursue reform in the foreign assistance program "and to help build a platform for my successors."
But Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who chaired the hearing, said he did not know whether he would vote for Fore until he had a clear idea of the direction reforms would take.
Menendez also objected heatedly to some 20 to 30 foreign aid officials attending political briefings by administration aids on such issues as which Democratic candidates might be vulnerable and the passports debacle.
Fore said she was aware of the "informational briefings" and had attended one that dealt with "the political landscape."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said, meanwhile, that the Bush administration was not moving fast enough to issue visas to Iraqis who supported the United States in the conflict in Iraq.
Development help and other U.S. foreign assistance currently amounts to about $22 billion a year.
John Danilovich, who heads one program, the Millennium Challenge Corp., sharply criticized cuts in the $3 billion proposed by the administration.
The Senate has proposed $1.2 billion and the House recommended $1.8 billion.
He called the cuts "devastating" and told a reporter at least $2 billion was needed for new programs in Mongolia and a number of other countries. He also said he was not giving up on the $3 billion request.
The innovative MCC foreign aid program targets help to countries based on their performance on 16 policy issues.
"We must increase the quantity of foreign assistance, as well as the quality," Fore said.