The Integrity of the Passport Issuance Process

Vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process threaten the integrity of the U.S. passport

IAMAW FD1 NFFE Local 1998 is the federal labor organization that represents the 1,400 bargaining unit employees of Passport Services, a division of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs that is responsible for processing and issuing that vast majority of U.S. passports.  From 2001 and earlier, through 2013, Passport Specialists (adjudicators) have repeatedly expressed their concerns that they do not have enough time to diligently inspect passport applications.  They worry that due to unreasonable production quotas they may make a mistake and issue a passport in error to a fraud or criminal. 

 
 
 

 
Employees have also raised concerns about insufficient anti-fraud resources, training, and coordination.  This is the "# 1 Issue" and concern of the bargaining unit employees that the Union represents. 
 

September, 2010:  The Washington region of the Federal Labor Relations Authority finds that adjudication changes that Passport Services imposed on should not have been implemented without affording an opportunity to bargain.  The changes at issue were added, time-consuming requirements for adjudicating a passport appplication.  A hearing is conducted, with testimony from 1998 President Rob Arnold and PPT/WN officers Melissa Toby and Josue Trinidad-Perez, but a final decision on the case is still being awaited as of 2012.

July 29, 2010: The Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing concerning the second, partially-successful attempt to fraudulently obtain passports. In addition to the testimony of Passport Services DAS Brenda Sprague and the GAO's Gregory Kutz, Local 1998 submitted written testimony for the hearing.

March/April 2010:  The Government Accountability Office conducts a second test of Passport fraud detection capabilities.  Of the seven new GAO applications, two are detected as frauds, four are approved in error, and one is denied by the specialist, but overruled and approved by a member of Management.  GAO successfully obtained three of these passports, but the Department of State - having deduced that another nationwide test was underway - had the remaining two approved passports recovered from the mail before they were delivered.

January, 2010:  Passport Services introduces a nationwide Standard Operating Procedure for passport adjudication.  The lower production requirements are accompanied by more notational recording and database-review requirements.

Throughout the remainder of 2009, Passport Management overhauled the adjudication process.  The changes resulted in an increase in the number of required notations on each application.

On March 13, 2009 the Associated Press reported that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted four passport applications with fraudulent documents as part of a test of Passport Services, and successfully obtained passports in all four attempts.  The GAO report (# 09-447), titled "Undercover Tests Reveal Significant Vulnerabilities in State's Passport Issuance Process", was released on March 16, 2009.  NFFE Local 1998 has warned Passport Services Management repeatedly about a number of vulnerabilities in the passport adjudication process that make it all too easy for fraudulent applicants to succeed in their attempts.  In a Union survey of adjudicators started in late February 2009, 95% said that production quotas needed to be lowered in order to improve efforts to prevent passport fraud.  The Union is hopeful that the GAO's test will lead to sustained improvements.

 
On December 17, 2008, Ambassador Joe Huggins (retired), a member of President-Elect Barack Obama's Transition Team for the Department of State, met with NFFE General Counsel Susan Grundmann and NFFE Local 1998 Union representatives (Colin Walle, Rob Arnold, Jennifer Gile, and Kamaria Blandford).  The Union representatives conveyed concerns about vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process that are a priority that the Union believes should be addressed. 
The Union officials emphasized two particular aspects of this concern: 1) the production quotas for passport adjudication should be adjusted to allow more time for fraud detection and diligent adjudication, and 2) the passport application acceptance/execution function should only be performed by government workers (not contractors).  The Union expressed its appreciation to Ambassador Huggins for the meeting.  Letter to President-Elect Obama's DOS Transition Team 

 
The importance of protecting the integrity of the passport issuance process

The United States passport has been called the "gold standard of travel documents".  It is accepted as proof of citizenship and identity for U.S. citizens/nationals - for entering the U.S., but also for other purposes as well (domestic air travel, business transactions, obtaining government benefits, entering federal buildings, etc.).  The trustworthiness of the passport - and the trustworthiness of the issuance process - is relied upon by officers of U.S. and foreign government agencies.  As such, it is a cornerstone of our nation's border security and thus our national security.  

The Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is the Agency responsible for conducting "criminal investigations into violations of passport and visa fraud."  DS explains that "These federal felonies are often committed in connection with more serious crimes, such as international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, alien smuggling, money laundering, pedophilia, and murder. These investigations are critical to the President's efforts to secure American borders and protect the national security of the United States.”  DS adds: “The U.S. passport is the most valuable identity document in the world as it establishes American citizenship and allows its bearer unlimited access to virtually every country in the world. People who attempt to obtain a U.S. passport illegally often are seeking to change their identities and conceal their activities and movements.”
 

Criminals attempt to commit passport fraud either by tampering/misusing the passport itself, or by illegally obtaining a passport through the application process.  It is the vulnerabilities in the application process that are the focus of the Union's concerns, though the Union has protested the manufacturing of the passport book cover and electronic chip in Europe and Thailand.  

When adjudicators are forced to rush through the inspection process to meet quotas, the result is that frauds are issued in error to criminals.  NFFE Local 1998 believes this vulnerability should be addressed by providing more time, and more resources, for adjudicators to do their jobs.  

Attempts by the Union to address concerns

For over 2 years leading up to the implementation of standardized adjudication performance standards on January 1, 2004, the Union made numerous efforts to work with Management through partnership and negotiations processes on this issue - "Plan A" - and expressed the concerns of the employees to Management on numerous occasions. When Plan A finally failed on December 2, 2003, the Union was forced to take the unprecedented step of conveying its concerns on this serious subject by writing letters to and visiting members of Congress: "Plan B".  This also involved contacting the Department of State's Office of Inspector General (OIG).  The Union also contested Management's unreasonable performance plan via traditional labor-management methods (by filing a Grievance and two Unfair Labor Practice charges), dubbed "Plan C", but those efforts were unsuccessful. Local 1998 received a great deal of support from its umbrella organizations. NFFE sent letters to 60 members of Congress, while the IAMAW included this issue in its Internet newsletter that reaches hundreds of thousands of members.  Click here for: IAMAW Statement.  
 

 
"Our national security is at stake and Passport Office Management is insisting that employees serve up US passports faster than a happy meal at McDonalds. 
If management won't listen, Congress should step in to ensure terrorists and criminals don't get US passports."
 - IAMAW President Tom Buffenbarger
    January 22, 2004 

The GAO, OIG, and Congress investigate

The Congress heard the concerns of the Union and asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate.  On June 29, 2005 the GAO issued a report titled "Improvements Needed to Strengthen U.S. Passport Fraud Detection Efforts" which criticized the Department of State's efforts to detect and prevent passport fraud. That same day the U.S. Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing titled "Vulnerabilities in the U.S. Passport System Can Be Exploited by Criminals and Terrorists", which addressed the GAO's report on this issue. Four NFFE Local 1998 Union representatives attended the hearing along with a NFFE National official and an IAMAW official. The GAO made six recommendations: 

1) consider way to improve interagency information sharing; 
2) establish a centralized and up-to-date fraud prevention library; 
3) consider augmenting fraud prevention staffing; 
4) assess the extent to which interoffice workload transfers may hinder fraud prevention; 
5) strengthen fraud prevention training; and 
6) strengthen fraud prevention oversight.

All of these issues were brought to the attention of Congress and the GAO by NFFE Local 1998 and the employees that we represent as part of "Plan B", with the aid of NFFE, the IAMAW, other NFFE and IAMAW locals, and our friends and families.  Comments by NFFE Local 1998 were included in the HSGAC report (numbered 75 through 89 in the report itself, but numbered 79 through 93 in the PDF). 

Related to the GAO's 3rd recommendation about permanent anti-fraud staffing, the Department of State's own Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report critical of passport anti-fraud efforts in November 2004. The Union's May 2005 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to have the portions focusing on Management's decision to eliminate the Assistant Fraud Program Manager (AFPM) position was partially approved on approximately August 4, 2005. The released portions reveal that "DS agents working with passport fraud, CA/FPP officers, and all passport agency FPMs" were not "consulted prior to the announcement of the decision to abolish the assistant FPM position in late 2003", adding that "[a]ll of the stakeholders claimed they would have opposed this personnel policy had they been consulted". The report mentioned the fact that the "union had expressed concerns about the effect that the elimination of this position would have on detection of passport fraud". As a result of the elimination of the AFPM's, "[s]everal of the FPMs said they are now spending more time training staff, are involved in a never-ending training mode, and have less time to devote to operational work, case development, and analysis". The OIG formally recommended that the AFPM positions be reestablished. 

The light shined on this subject definitely yielded positive results - most notably the addition of over a million names of fugitive criminals and suspected terrorists from the FBI and the Terror Screening Center to the Department of State's passport CLASS Namecheck system.  The closing of this major loophole was reported on by many major media outlets, including The New York Times in a front page story and NBC Nightly News.  
 

 

GAO Report # 05-477
published June 29, 2005

HSGAC Report on Hearing 
held June 29, 2005 

Continued efforts to address adjudication quotas

The June 29, 2005 GAO report was also critical of the development of the adjudication performance standards and stated that the changes did put more emphasis on quantity rather than quality, but concluded that since the work processes kept changing during the time period studied, they were unable to draw firm conclusions on the issue at this time. 

However, while the GAO pointed out that "in response to union and examiner [adjudicator] concerns, State eased the production standards during 2004 [the daily quota for GS-9 and GS-11 adjudicators was effectively lowered from 168 to 156 applications] and made a number of other modifications and compromises", the adjudicators continue to feel they have insufficient time to adequately scrutinize passport applications for fraud indicators and to determine entitlement to a U.S. passport.  

In July 2005 a survey of adjudicators showed that 96% believed the numerical standards still did not provide enough time, a more comprehensive January 2006 survey found that 94% of respondents felt the same (and 96% felt that the focus in the job was more on quantity than on quality), and in March 2007 a petition was signed by 85% of non-probationary adjudicators asking that HQ lower the quotas (scroll down below for more on this). This problem received coverage in a July 2007 Christian Science Monitor Story (also picked up by the UPI) and in a June 2007 story by MSNBC Red Tape Chronicles author Bob Sullivan, in which he asked "What stands between a terrorist and a new U.S. passport? About two and a half minutes. That's how much time passport inspectors have to make sure applications are authentic."

From January 2006 to present, the Union has continued to press this issue in communications to HQ (including formal requests in writing to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services) and in contract negotiations, though no headway has been made as of February 2009.  

Scroll down below for more information about adjudication quotas.   
 

Efforts to address passport acceptance function concern 

Applicants who submit passport applications for the first time must apply in person and establish their identity, swear an oath, and meet other requirements to a Passport Acceptance Agent.  This process is called "accepting" or "executing" a passport application.  Prior to June 2007, it had been decades-long (or longer) practice and policy of the Department of State that passport applications could only executed by government personnel - Passport Specialists and Foreign Service Officers employed by the Department of State, specially designated employees of the U.S. Postal Service, or specially designated state, county, or city government officials.  This is a very critical function, as the person accepting the application literally serves as the eyes and ears of the Department of State.  A passport is essentially a letter from the Secretary of State to a foreign government that identifies the bearer and asks for entry and assistance for that bearer in his/her travels.  The basis for the Secretary to identify the bearer in the passport begins most critically with the Acceptance Agent.  The Acceptance Agent plays an important role in helping to detect and prevent fraudulent applications for passports.  

As a step to address the unprecedented workload crisis in mid-2007 that was caused by insufficient hiring and preparation, Passport Services Management took the alarming step of contracting out this vital function in June 2007 to non-governmental contractors who had no experience and little training on how to execute passport applications or identify fraudulent applicants.  NFFE Local 1998 attempted to address this by filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge, which was resolved with a memorandum of understanding that only served to somewhat lessen the chance of the function being contracted out in the future.  

The Union also submitted a FAIR Act Inventory challenge on July 29, 2008.  A July 31, 2008 NFFE National press release on this subject was picked up by the Government Executive on August 5, 2008 and by Federal Daily on August 8, 2008.  The challenge was denied by the Department of State on September 5, 2008 so on September 15th NFFE President Rick Brown wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appealing the denial.  In the September 5th denial, the DOS claimed that the function of identifying passport applicants was not inherently governmental and could be contracted out.  However, the DOS stated that the practice had ceased and would not continue, noting that 400 adjudicators had been hired since September 2007.  NFFE President Brown expressed appreciation for that statement, but argued that the job function was inherently governmental and that the door to using contractors for that job should be closed permanently.  The Union's appeal was subsequently denied.  

The Union also wrote to the Department of State seeking a meeting to discuss another aspect of this issue - the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).  That law governs the federal rules-making process - the manner in which a proposed rule in the Federal Register becomes a final rule (with the force of law) in the Code of Federal Regulations.  The Department of State has not yet agreed to a meeting.  The Union's concern is that the Department of State may have violated the APA by publishing in the final rule as part of 22 CFR 51.22 explicit authorization to use contractors for the execution function when that was never included in the March 7, 2007 proposed rule - a "bolt from the blue".  The problem is illustrated here: 
 

March 7, 2007 Proposed Rule published in the Federal Register: 
 

Sec. 51.22 Passport agents and passport acceptance agents.

(a) U.S. citizen Employees of the Department authorized to serve as passport agents. The following employees of the Department are authorized by virtue of their positions to serve as passport agents unless the Department in an individual case withdraws authorization:

....
(4) Such U.S. citizen Department of State employees as the Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs may designate for the purpose of administering oaths and affirmations for passport applications.

(b) Persons designated by the Department to serve as passport acceptance agents. When designated by the Department, the following persons are authorized to serve as passport acceptance agents unless the Department in an individual case withdraws authorization.

....

(c) Qualifications of persons designated by the Department to serve as passport acceptance agents. Before the Department will designate a person described in Sec. 51.22(b) as a passport acceptance agent, his or her employer must certify that the person:

....
(3) Is a permanent employee, excluding ad hoc, contractual, and volunteer employees; and

November 19, 2007 Final Rule included in the Code of Federal Regulations: 

Sec. 51.22 Passport agents and passport acceptance agents.

(a) U.S. citizen employees of the Department authorized to serve as passport agents. The following employees of the Department are authorized by virtue of their positions to serve as passport agents unless the Department in an individual case withdraws authorization:

....
(4) Such U.S. citizen Department of State employees and contractors as the Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs may designate for the purpose of administering oaths and affirmations for passport applications.

(b) Persons designated by the Department to serve as passport acceptance agents. When designated by the Department, the following persons are authorized to serve as passport acceptance agents unless the Department in an individual case withdraws authorization.

....

(c) Qualifications of persons designated by the Department to serve as passport acceptance agents. Before the Department will designate a person described in §51.22(b) as a passport acceptance agent, his or her employer must certify that the person:

....
(3) Is a permanent employee, excluding ad hoc, contractual, and volunteer employees; and

 
As you can see, there was no change in what was proposed in 22 CFR 51.22(c)(3) - Acceptance Agents would exclude "contractual" (non-governmental) workers.  This was simply a restating of long-standing Department of State policy.  It also reflects the fact that there was no intent in March 2007 to use contractors for this function.  Later, when Passport Services Management did use contractors for this function, they compared them to Acceptance Agents (as opposed to Passport Specialists directly employed by the Department of State).  The Union agrees with the inclusion of this restatement of long-standing policy in the CFR.  

The potential violation of the APA occurs above, in 22 CFR 51.22(a)(4), where the Department of State had listed only DOS employees in the proposed rule but then added "and contractors" in the final rule.  

There were only four comments on the proposed rule received by the Department of State.  None of them touched on the issue of the use of contractors to perform the acceptance function.  The Union was not given the opportunity, as required by the APA, to comment on any proposed addition of "and contractors" to the CFR.  The Union believes these two words should be stricken from the CFR.  

 

Passport adjudication quotas create a vulnerability in the issuance process; employees need more time for fraud detection
 
Adjudicators once again state that more focus needed on quality work; quotas need to be lowered to catch frauds
 
March 13, 2009: In a Union survey of adjudicators started in late February 2009, 628 stated that their production quotas should be lowered to improve efforts to detect passport fraud, 18 stated the quotas should remain the same, and 10 did not know. The percentage of adjudicators - 95% - stating that more time is needed for diligent scrutiny of applications is virtually the same as in previous surveys done by the Union in 2005, 2006, and 2007.  

 
327 (non-probationary) adjudicators sign "NO CONFIDENCE" petition asking Passport Services for sufficient time to diligently adjudicate

 
March 30, 2007:
NFFE Local 1998 sent a petition signed by 327 Passport Specialists from 16 offices around the country asking Headquarters to lower the numerical performance requirements ("quotas") "because the current numerical standards do not give us sufficient time to diligently scrutinize the applications and evidence for fraud". 

The petition was gathered between late January and early March. Only non-probationary employees were invited to sign (probationary employees have few rights to contest terminations, and some expressed concerns about retaliation). At the time the petition was distributed, there were about 665 Passport Specialists working for Passport Services, many of whom were still in probationary status (partly due to additional hires, and partly due to the use of a new 2-year probationary period). 

Of 383 non-probationary employees asked to sign the petition, 327 chose to sign their names - which is an overwhelming 85% participation rate. Virtually all of the Senior Passport Specialists (GS-11's) signed the petition. The Union asked HQ to respond to this petition within a month's time. The petition marks yet another effort in a long series of attempts by the Union to address this issue with Passport Services Management.  Click here to read the petition cover letter, including the wording of the petition: 2007 ADJ PETITION.  
 


Passport Specialists: We don't have enough time for diligent adjudication and fraud detection, survey says

 
January 13, 2006:
Between January 9 and January 13, 2006 the Union surveyed all bargaining unit employees and asked all Passport Specialists whether they agreed with the following statement: "The numerical performance standards do NOT provide me with sufficient time to diligently adjudicate passport applications (without taking shortcuts) and carefully scrutinize the evidence/application/tools for fraud indicators".  

Out of the 368 Passport Specialists who indicated a firm response, 248 said they “Strongly Agreed” and 98 said they “Agreed” with that statement – an overwhelming 94% (there were 58 Passport Specialists - mostly new hires - who indicated they were "Neutral", left the question blank, or wrote "N/A", and 23 employees combined who “Disagreed” or “Strongly Disagreed”). 

In addition, 97% of employees indicating a response said that the focus in adjudication is on quantity instead of quality, employees listed the "integrity of the passport issuance process" as their # 1 issue out of 10 options, and out of 228 written comments that were received 112 focused on the numerical adjudication standards (111 - 99% - took the time to argue that they should be lowered and that we need to focus more on quality).  Almost every Passport Specialist who was present during the week of the survey participated. 

 


 January 2006 survey results on adjudication numerical standards, showing only those who gave a firm response

 


January 2006 survey results on numerical adjudication standards, showing all responses

 


January 2006 survey results of quantity vs. quality emphasis, showing only those indicating a firm response

 


January 2006 survey results of quantity vs. quality emphasis, showing all responses


Survey confirms concerns about integrity and quality 

 
July 15, 2005
: Survey by Union Confirms Concerns About the Integrity of the Passport Issuance Process. The results of the Union's June 27th - July 8th survey of passport specialists views on passport integrity and performance standards issues were released. The survey reached approximately 336 of the 489 passport specialists, and 142 employees responded. The total number of responses and the percentage of employees participating (42%) is the highest of any survey since at least 1998. The results of the survey:

  • 96% said that the numerical performance standards do NOT provide sufficient time to diligently adjudicate passport applications and detect passport fraud
  • 93% said they have to take shortcuts to make the quota
  • 93% felt that the emphasis in the job (retention, appraisals, awards, promotions) is on quantity, not quality or a good balance
  • 94% are concerned that we will issue a passport to a criminal or terrorist
  • 54% believe we do NOT have sufficient anti-fraud resources training, 26% believe we do, and 19% said we don't have time anyway
  • 98% disagreed (some very strongly) with the claim that "nearly every specialist is making the numbers, so that proves that the standards are just fine and there is no reason to reduce them"

 


United States Office of Special Counsel: Passport Services employees may contact Congress regarding concerns about passport issuance process
 
January 24, 2007:
The United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC) issued an advisory legal opinion regarding whether employees of Passport Services are allowed under the Hatch Act to write letters to Congress expressing concerns about the integrity of the passport issuance process.  The OSC is "an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency" which has, among other responsibilities, the authority to issue advisory opinions that enable "individuals to determine whether contemplated political activities are permitted under the [Hatch] Act" (quoting from the OSC website).  The advisory opinion was requested by NFFE Local 1998.  The OSC summed up the request as follows: "Department of State employees would like to consider writing letters or personally visiting members of Congress to express your concerns about the passport issuance process".  In the opinion, the OSC stated that the "Hatch Act does not prohibit you or other Department of State employees from contacting members of Congress".   The OSC also noted that "the Hatch Act does not prohibit you from using official time to contact members of Congress about your concerns with the passport issuance process". 
 
NFFE Local 1998 had sought the opinion from the OSC because some employees had incorrectly believed that writing letters to Congress about vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process might violated the Hatch Act.  The OSC's letter confirms that employees of Passport Services retain their right to write to Congress about this issue.  

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