June 19, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
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.
Workplace quotas require passport inspectors, known as adjudicators, to process 24 applications every hour, according to Colin Walle, president of the federal employees union chapter that represents passport workers.
That's too fast a pace to catch would-be ID thieves, crooks or terrorists, the union has warned repeatedly. And internal memos obtained by MSNBC.com show that the State Department’s Office of Passport Services has for two years in a row waived requirements to keep error rates on new passports under 1 percent. In some cases, high error rates have been blamed on Citigroup, which now performs initial processing of all passport applications, according to a State Department memo viewed by MSNBC.com.
Even at this breakneck, error-riddled pace, the agency will have trouble making a dent in a backlog of 3 million passport applications. If the State Department hired 200 new adjudicators today, it would take them nearly 90 days to work through the backlog -- assuming no time for training, according to MSNBC.com calculations.
Promised new workers missing?
Passport problems have a simple origin, Walle said: The State Department promised to hire nearly 400 new workers to handle the expected crush of new passports this year, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports for most North American travel took effect. So far, fewer than 200 additional adjudicators have been hired since the new requirements were announced two years ago, he said.
"Passport headquarters knew they needed a lot more workers, but they didn't get what they needed," Walle said. “Senior managers told us back in February '05 that they had requested an additional 468 staff (most of them adjudicators), but apparently someone else higher up … didn't grant the request.”
According to data provided by the union, the passport office had 505 adjudicators in October 2005, and 698 as of June 11.
The situation is exacerbated by problems with outside contractor Citigroup, which is paid by the federal government to perform initial processing of applications, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Citigroup-hired contractors open passport mail, cash checks and scan in hand-written applications in preparation for inspection.
The data, along with the applicant's supporting documentation, are then passed along to government employees who work as adjudicators. They decide, based on a database search and a glance at the documentation, whether or not a passport will be issued. They also double-check data entered by the contractors to make sure names are spelled correctly, addresses match, etc., before the passport is printed. Work standards require the adjudicators to maintain error rates of less than 1 percent.
Citigroup data entry mistakes blamed
But the software that Citigroup has used to scan the passport applications has produced error-riddled data results, according to the union. That’s part of the reason the Office of Passport Services dropped the quality control standards two years in a row.
Most errors in passports are clerical, Walle said -- a misspelled name, an incorrect birthday or a swapped photograph. And not all can be blamed on problems with the original data entry. But those errors slow down the adjudication process, and hint at potential weaknesses in the passport processing system.
Citigroup took over the processing duties in 2005, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which manages Citigroup’s data entry efforts on behalf of the passport office.
Ann Barrett, then managing director of passport services, sent a memo to employees in November saying, "Due to the increased number of data entry errors by the new ... provider (particularly during the first half of 2006), passport specialists will not be rated for data errors." At the time, the memo said, Citigroup management promised to invest in new "Intelligent Character Recognition" scanning software to improve data accuracy.
“(I) personally talked with senior Citigroup management as recently as November 6 and impressed upon them the need to accelerate the introduction of this new ICR technology and to make other changes to their system, such as address verification, which should significantly reduce the error rate,” the memo said.
But the problems persisted into this year, the union says. For evidence, Walle points to a memo sent to passport workers by a new acting director of passport services, Tyrone Shelton, on May 30 stating that error standards would be waived this year, too.
"We have decided not to evaluate passport specialists for data errors for the 2007 ratings cycle," it said. "Please encourage your supervisors to take this time to assist employees having difficulty achieving an error rate of less than 1 percent."
The memos were provided to MSNBC.com by the union; a State Department official asked about the memos did not confirm or deny their authenticity.
System is 'working well'
The State Department referred questions about Citicorp to the U.S. Treasury Department. Gary Grippo, assistant commissioner of Financial Management Services at the U.S. Treasury Department, denied Citigroup has any role in the troubles at the passport office.
“There have been no problems that are out of the ordinary,” with Citigroup’s data entry, Grippo said. “They are performing well … I’m not aware of anything that would contribute to a backlog.”
He said he was not aware of the memo written by Barrett.
A Citigroup public relations official said the firm could not comment on individual contracts, citing customer confidentiality.
In Seattle's passport office, where Walle works, there is now a 100,000-application backlog.
"We've run out of shelves," the union president said, adding that overflow applications were at one time piled 6 feet high in bins that have at times overtaken the office's break room and some of the hallways.
Meanwhile, each of the passport adjudicators around the country is working mandatory overtime. Because of the way overtime productivity is calculated, workers on extra hours actually have slightly less time -- about 2 minutes and 10 seconds -- to inspect each application, Walle said.
Union members support the new passport requirement, Walle stressed, but said they want to be sure they have what they need to fulfill the requirements.
Not everyone believes the agency is working with utmost urgency to fill all open passport-related positions.
Len Perlman, 59, applied for a job at the Philadelphia passport processing center earlier this year through an outside contractor. After completing an extensive background check -- including nine non-family references -- he was hired.
"(Passport workers) are begging for help. They were so glad to see me on my first day," Perlman said. "… I've never seen anything like that."
'It is really chaotic'
Five weeks later, he was told he'd actually failed the background check, and was fired. Confused, he enlisted the help of Sen. Arlen Specter’s office and was told two weeks later that the background check failure was an error. He is now eligible to be rehired, but has been told that process might take 30 to 45 days.
"There is irony in this whole thing," Perlman said. "It is really chaotic. This might be one of the reasons they are having trouble."
The Senate Foreign Relations committee is expected scheduled to hold hearings on the State Department's response to the passport problems on Tuesday.
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