WASHINGTON – Posing as someone else and using fake birth certificates and driver's licenses to get a U.S. passport can still work.
For the second time in two years, government investigators exposed a gaping hole in the country's security by deliberately using fraudulent material to obtain passports.
The investigation by the Government Accountability Office, detailed on Capitol Hill Thursday, demonstrates that despite security overhauls since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the State Department's system for issuing passports remains vulnerable to fraud.
It also shows how an illegally obtained U.S. passport — one of the most sought after travel documents in the world — could provide cover for drug dealers, murderers and others trying to avoid capture.
In the most recent probe, GAO investigators applied for seven passports and received three, no eyebrows raised. In two other cases, the applications were initially approved but later denied when fraud was discovered. State Department officials rejected two other bogus applications.
In a similar investigation in March 2009, government investigators used phony documents and the identities of a dead man and a 5-year-old boy to obtain U.S. passports. One investigator used the Social Security number of a man who died in 1965, a fake New York birth certificate and a fake Florida driver's license. He received a passport four days later.
In the latest ruse, conducted between January and June of this year, investigators used a fake Florida birth certificate, fake West Virginia driver's license and a recently issued Social Security number for a 62-year-old applicant. The same picture was used for multiple applications under different names.
"Nearly nine years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it is long overdue for the State Department to secure its system for issuing passports," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the State Department, said human error and the sheer volume of documents that the department produces each year will always challenge the integrity of the passport application review process. The State Department issued 13 million passports in 2009.
In Sprague's prepared remarks for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, she listed steps consular officers took once they discovered they were dealing with fakery. These included ordering a new schedule for improvements at passport offices and agencies across the country so that more facial recognition technology is used.
Sprague said the improvements made after previous investigations are among the reasons officials were able to catch four out of the seven fake applications in the most recent test.
"It shows that our work has improved in terms of detecting passport fraud, but we still have work to do," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday.
Associated Press Writer Robert Burns contributed to this story.