Senior Democrat demands better security, U.S.-only production of e-passports

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A senior Senate Democrat today demanded that the government move all production of America's electronic passport into the United States and enhance security of the manufacturing supply chain after e-Passport problems were uncovered in a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration that oversees the Government Printing Agency (GPO), said there was no reason why sensitive computer chips and antennas for the e-Passports had to be assembled in a plant in Thailand, a country plagued by frequent political unrest, violence and terrorism. The GPO is responsible for making e-Passports.

“I ask that you take immediate action to ensure that GPO exercises far greater control and oversight over the entire supply chain for all components of the United States passport. This should be done by moving all aspects of the production of U.S. passports — including the integrated circuit chips which are now being manufactured outside the U.S. — to United States manufacturing and production facilities,” Schumer wrote GPO’s top official, Public Printer Robert Tapella.

The Center and ABC News reported on Monday that GPO has permitted production of key e-Passport equipment to persist in Thailand for four years despite repeated concerns by its own security officer that the location posed security risks. GPO also failed to develop proper security procedures and monitoring for the e-passport manufacturing supply chain that spans some 60 vendors across the globe, the joint investigation found.

GPO said today it will finish moving the assembly work out of Thailand this summer. It defended its decision to have the work done there, saying no American firms qualified for the business when the original contracts were awarded. "No vendor responding to the Request For Proposal (RFP) offering domestic made products met the rigorous compliance testing mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)," GPO said.

Schumer dismissed that explanation. "There are more than 25 companies in the United States — and at least five companies in New York — who possess the capability and knowledge to manufacture the chips that are currently being manufactured elsewhere and assembled in Thailand," he wrote to GPO’s Tapella.

Schumer noted that security experts quoted by the Center and ABC News said the vulnerabilities in the e-Passport manufacturing chain left open the possibility that terrorists or other bad actors could create forgeries.

"As you know, possessing a U.S. passport opens virtually all of the doors in the United States to the bearer. A passport can be readily used to get a job, gain access to government buildings, gain access to airports and seaports, and enter and exit the United States with relative ease,” Schumer wrote. “Consequently, it is absolutely essential that we are doing all that we possibly can to ensure that criminal and terrorists are not gaining access to U.S. passports by tampering with the supply chain in foreign countries. The only way to accomplish this goal is to ensure that the entire supply chain for U.S. passports is manufactured, assembled, and continually inspected here in the United States.”