Ever since 9/11 and the subsequent attack attempts, airport security has used each new incident to come up with new safety measures. Some of them are rather esoteric, and many inconvenience passengers before every flight: an obvious example would be requiring the removal and placing of shoes in those little bins after the shoe bomber’s attempt.
The justification for all these picayune rules is our safety. Everyone knows that safety can’t be perfect, and that they can’t think of everything. But can they not think of the most obvious things?
Such as for example, checking passenger manifests against databases that list millions of stolen passports?
Apparently not. Apparently this is only done in “a handful of countries,” according to Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble, who seems none-too-pleased about it. After all, why does Interpol go to the trouble to list the passports in a database if most countries don’t check them? With computers, that should be easy enough, shouldn’t it?
No one should be able to travel on a stolen passport, even if they’re just ordinary criminals rather than terrorists. If I report my credit card as stolen, they cancel it soon enough, and everyone seems to get the word immediately. Why would a passport be any different?
It’s not as though the problem wasn’t known about, either. Not only has Interpol repeatedly issued warnings, but there’s a history:
A war crimes suspect who tried to attend a conference in Congo, but was instead arrested; the killer of the Serbian prime minister crossed 27 borders on a missing passport before he was caught; Samantha Lewthwaite, the former wife of one of the suicide bombers in the 2005 attack on London’s transit system, escaped capture when she produced a fraudulently obtained South African passport.
Which countries do check against against the Interpol list? The article indicates that the United Arab Emirates, US, Britain, France, and Switzerland do. Countries that don’t often cite lack of police personnel and privacy concerns.
The stolen-passport market has been enhanced by the development of technology that can alter photos or match people to already-existing photos. The story of one of the men whose passport was stolen and used on the Malaysian plane is chilling:
Maraldi, the 37-year-old Italian, had deposited his passport as a guarantee at a motorbike rental shop. But when he returned the bike, the shop said they’d already given his passport to some guy who looked like him.
Some guy just appeared who looked like him? Seems exceedingly odd. Or was the clerk at the motorbike shop part of a stolen passport ring?
[NOTE: All this talk of fake and/or stolen passports makes me think of one of my favorite movies, the 1973 "Day of the Jackal." Passports and identity theft are featured prominently in this chilling portrait of an international assassin-for-hire:
If you've never seen it, you'd do well to rent it.]
[ADDENDUM: Authorities say they now know the identity of one of the fake-ID passengers. He's a non-Malaysian, but they're not announcing the identity yet. What's more:
During a Monday press briefing, a reporter asked [Malaysia's Transportation Minister] Hussein about reports that a media personality received an open letter from the Leader of Chinese Martyr Brigade claiming responsibility for the incident. When asked about the letter, a Malaysian official said, “Yes, there is sound ground to say it is true, but again, we have said from the beginning that we are not taking anything for granted.”.
Also, according to a “senior police official” in Kuala Lumpur:
“We have stopped men with false or stolen passports and carrying explosives, who have tried to get past KLIA (airport) security and get on to a plane,” he said. “There have been two or three incidents, but I will not divulge the details.”
That’s not good.]