Getting to the bottom of passport processing flaws proves thorny

The State Department's management and union clashed this week over the root causes of passport processing mistakes revealed by the Government Accountability Office last month -- but seemed to agree there were systemic problems in State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Colin Walle, president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, said the State Department was placing too much of the blame for the problems uncovered by GAO on human error. An approach of moving applications along without waiting for the results of Social Security Administration database checks and a workplace culture of "quantity over quality" are more to blame, Walle said.

In March, GAO issued a report revealing that an undercover investigator obtained four passports using fake identifying information, including the Social Security number of a man who had died in 1965. State responded in part by suspending the adjudication authority of the passport specialists involved.

"We're getting fed up with how they're handling this," Walle said. "The employees are being scapegoated for the mistakes."

But Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the State Department, said the suspension of the four specialists' approval authority was not a disciplinary action, but an attempt at training and education. The department required similar training for other workers who issued passports in error, she said. She added that State conducted an audit of all passport specialists immediately following the GAO report, and found few other procedural lapses.

From Sprague's perspective, miscommunication was at the heart of the failure.

"We never provided a clear directive that all work had to be held on a Social Security check to come back," she said.

That means the specialists and their supervisors might have been unclear about the security procedures surrounding passport approval, she said. "That's a systemic problem, and I take full responsibility for that," Sprague said.

State was experiencing a relative lull in applications in late 2008 after a spike in 2007, Sprague noted. The database check can take a day, which was never an issue when employees faced a backlog of applications in 2007, she said. But when the workload decreased and passport applications could be processed much faster, some specialists and supervisors didn't know to wait for the database check to be completed.

"It had been such a long time since we ever had the luxury of turning passport applications around so quickly, the idea that this could happen really never occurred to anybody," she said

State is considering recommendations in an April 13 GAO letter following up on the March report, and will work with the union to implement additional training, standardize procedures for verifying applicants' identification information, and adopt other security tools such as facial recognition software, Sprague said.

The union would like to see better coordination with SSA to allow immediate checks of databases -- rather than a time lag of a day or more, Walle said. NFFE also wants more permanent fraud staffing, and more incentives for fraud prevention and "quality work," he said.

"We're the ones intimately familiar with vulnerabilities," he said. "We're the ones who have been crying for help."

The Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security plans to hold hearings on this issue in May, but has not scheduled them yet.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.