updated 6/23/2004 6:01:49 PM ET 2004-06-23T22:01:49

People using stolen passports still are able to enter the country despite enhanced security checks meant to keep them out, Congress was told Wednesday.

And sometimes when U.S. border authorities discover such passports and deny entry, they give the documents back to the travelers, said Clark Kent Ervin, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

That part of Ervin’s testimony before the House Committee on International Relations rankled California Rep. Tom Lantos, the panel’s top Democrat. He called such a practice “moronic” and “idiotic.”

“An insane asylum would be embarrassed to have such a procedure,” Lantos said.

Bill Strassberger, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said the agency’s goal is to take all false documents out of circulation, but sometimes documents are given back by mistake.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government has sought to keep better track of those who enter the country. But Ervin said his office found examples of people entering the country even though they carried passports entered in government databases as lost or stolen.

“We obtained documents that recount instances in which blank, bona fide passports from other countries were stolen and, as determined from their serial numbers, later used to enter the United States,” Ervin told members of the committee.

Hyde cites Congress
Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said Ervin’s findings are disturbing.

“In today’s world when countries are tightening up their border controls due to terrorism concerns, what could be more valuable than a first-class ticket to travel unfettered anywhere in the world? A stolen passport may be worth more than its weight in gold,” Hyde said.

“This seems to me a vulnerability we have been too late in paying attention to, and Congress deserves some blame for that.”

Ervin said his office plans to release a follow-up report on passport security in about six months. Citing the continuing investigation, he was unwilling to give further details on where the travelers entered, how they were able to pass through security and whether any of those who entered pose terrorism threats. He said his office would have informed proper authorities if any of the travelers were deemed a threat.

Interpol: 10 million-plus stolen passports
James Sullivan, U.S. national central bureau director for Interpol, estimated there are more than 10 million stolen or lost passports in circulation, many of them from European countries where international travel is more common, he said.

Interpol, an international law enforcement agency with 181 participating countries, has compiled a database containing 1.6 million records of identification numbers from lost or stolen national identity and travel documents, such as passports, visas and vehicle registrations.

Ervin’s investigators discovered the illegal entries while reviewing the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 27 countries that are close American allies to enter the United States without a visa. Starting in September, those people will be required to be fingerprinted and photographed through the U.S.-VISIT program.

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