It’s hard to believe, more than 12 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, that only now is a gaping hole in air travel security coming to light: Despite the creation of an international database of stolen passports, only three nations systematically screen passengers against that list.
That flaw has come to light because of the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight last weekend on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Two passengers boarded the flight with stolen passports and, while investigators now say they appear to have no links to terrorism, the potential for catastrophe is evident.
The database was created in 2002 in response to the terror attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Yet, despite the obvious need to monitor those traveling with false documents, only the United States, Great Britain and the United Arab Emirates are making systematic use of the database, according to the international law enforcement agency Interpol.
Perhaps other countries, including our neighbors Canada and Mexico, think they are immune to this kind of subterfuge, or perhaps it’s just that 13 years without a successful terror incident involving an airplane has left some countries in denial about the threat.
Americans, at least, are not allowed that luxury. Those who board planes in this country remove their belts and shoes, empty their pockets, submit their luggage for searching and put up with full-body imaging. Is it too much to expect that other countries will make the minor effort to verify that passengers flying out of their airports aren’t using stolen passports?
Here’s what happened last year, alone, according to Interpol: Passengers were able to board airplanes more than 1 billion times without having their passports checked against the database. That’s about 2.7 million times every day, 112,500 times per hour and nearly 2,000 times every minute.
How many of those were phony or stolen passports isn’t known, but the importance is undeniable. The United States, Great Britain and the United Arab Emirates together access the database more than 420 million times each year, producing 60,000 hits, matching passports presented for entry to documents reported as stolen.
Many of those cases turn out to be innocent, the passports belonging to people who reported them lost but who later found them. Even still, Interpol says the database has helped in the apprehension of many criminal fugitives and terrorism suspects.
It’s not expensive to access the system, an Interpol official told the New York Times, adding that the agency would offer technical assistance to member countries that want to use it.
What it takes is the will to put the system to work, and while some countries may never sign on, it’s hard to understand why our North American neighbors, as well as sophisticated nations such as France, Spain, Germany and Israel, aren’t making use of a system that is one tool to help draw the net around terrorists.
At a minimum, had the system been in use for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, investigators would not have had to spend days chasing down information to determine who was flying on stolen passports and for what reason. Next time, who knows?