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Passport answers in short supply

Americans are asking why officials weren't ready for the rush.

June 20, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Peter Pae | Times Staff Writers

Desperate to obtain their U.S. passports, world travelers have been flying to Seattle, where the passport office is considered one of the nation's most efficient. But even there, more than 110,000 backlogged applications are piled in closets, the supervisor's office and the break room.

Many won't be touched for months. Half of the staff is trying to help the crowds jamming the lobby and spilling out the door.

How did it get this bad?

Federal officials in Washington acknowledge that they failed to anticipate just how much the post-Sept. 11 travel regulations would fuel demand for passports; did not hire enough workers to handle the increase; and neglected to notice or react to signs early this spring of a burgeoning problem.

The State Department estimates that the number of Americans seeking passports this year will reach 17.5 million, up from 12 million in 2005 -- the result of new rules requiring such documentation for air travelers returning from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Applicants' average wait time has swelled from six weeks to 12 weeks or more.

For nearly two years, federal officials knew the revised rules were coming, along with a crush of applications. And Tuesday, during a packed subcommittee hearing on the passport backlog, senators assailed Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs.

"We want to know who is accountable, why this mess happened," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel's chairman, who spent Monday with irate travelers in Tampa.

Acknowledging the department's miscalculation, Harty said that employees had been swamped by "a record-setting demand in a compressed period of time."

Some officials, however, have described the delays as a reasonable price to pay for added national security.

"Yes, there may be some delays involved and some personal inconvenience, but this effort is a righteous effort, and it will make our country more secure," Russ Knocke, chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said last week.

But unsuspecting travelers like Brenda Newport of North Canton, Ohio, found the stress nearly too much to bear. Newport, after learning she had breast cancer, had been planning a dream trip with her sister to Scotland, but her sister's passport was held up for months. Passport workers said she would have to travel to Chicago and pay $60 for expedited processing. Instead, Newport's son called the local TV stations and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio). Newport's sister received the document barely in time to catch her plane.

"It's disappointing it took 15 weeks and an act of a ... senator to get that done," said Newport's son, Daniel Matea. "That's just ridiculous."

In a letter Monday, 56 senators called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to step in to resolve the passport problems before they worsened.

In an effort to ease the backlog, the State Department announced earlier this month that it would waive the new rules -- which took effect in January -- through Sept. 30 for travelers who already had applied for passports. Under current plans, the requirements for airline passengers will apply to travelers arriving by land and sea as well in January 2008.

The regulations grew out of recommendations made by the Sept. 11 commission, which in 2004 called for a standardized form of identification for all U.S. travelers to boost border security. In April 2005, the Homeland Security and State departments unveiled the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which required passports, rather than simply driver's licenses or birth certificates, for travelers returning from nearby countries.

Almost immediately, congressional leaders voiced concern that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had set overly ambitious deadlines for the program. President Bush, who signed a raft of post-Sept. 11 security legislation into law, also questioned the plan, saying it could impede travel.

By last spring, skepticism had increased. A May 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that neither Homeland Security nor the State Department was fully prepared. "They have a long way to go to implement their proposed plans, and the time to get the job done is slipping by," the report said.

State Department officials disputed that finding, noting that they planned to hire 130 additional passport workers and to expand the number of locations that accept applications, mostly post offices, from 7,500 to 9,500.

Yet when the requirement took effect Jan. 23, a backlog began to develop almost instantly. Even as calls to Congress from irate travelers turned from a trickle to a stream over the next month, Chertoff reassured the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the initiative was working well.

"All the doom and gloom turned out not to come out," he said. "And that's because we stuck to the program."

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