While investigators hunt for clues as to what brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the revelation two passengers possibly used stolen European passports not only raises the specter of terrorism but also points to a huge vulnerability in aviation security, current and former officials told ABC News.
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Interpol, the international police cooperative, maintains a massive database at its Lyon, France headquarters with 40 million records of lost and stolen travel documents such as passports, officials said. And though 160 nations provide those reports, only a handful of them actually tap the freely accessible archive regularly to check on travelers at their airports or have the capability to do so, Interpol sources said
"I'm not sure that [Malaysian authorities are] screening for stolen passports at all over there at this point," one senior law enforcement official familiar with the system told ABC News. Another law enforcement official briefed on the ongoing investigation confirmed that Malaysia typically does not check the Interpol database and said the island nation has not run a search on it yet in 2014.
In a statement posted online today, Interpol said that prior to the takeoff of Flight 370, no country had checked with them about the Austrian or Italian passports possibly used by two passengers on the flight. If anyone had, Interpol could have told them that the Austrian passport had been reported stolen in 2012 and the Italian in 2013.
"Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol's databases," Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said in the statement. And because no one asked, Interpol said it has no way to know how many times the stolen passports may have been used before Flight 370.
The official briefed on the investigation said the two stolen passports were used to buy tickets with consecutive numbers, suggesting they were purchased at the same time and making it "less likely" that the presence of both stolen passports was a random incident. The travelers with the stolen passport were also only stopping in China on their way to a European destination, the official said.
Malaysia would hardly be alone in failing to check travelers' passports. Interpol reported that last year passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times around the world without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases.
A senior American law enforcement official told ABC News that while there is concern that terrorists could have used stolen passports to board the missing plane, fraudulent passports are most commonly used "for illicit criminal stuff like smuggling or drug trafficking and human trafficking," or by people who buy them "for work verification purposes."
Still, another former senior U.S. law enforcement official with close ties to Interpol cautioned that the lack of coordination over stolen passports could be a strong advantage for terrorists in particular.
"An individual who's going to sacrifice himself could easily use a stolen passport to get on a plane with explosives smuggled in their checked luggage and just sit there until it blows the plane to bits," he said.
The stolen passport check is a security hurdle that Interpol chief Noble said many in the international community should have cleared by now.
"Now we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights," Noble said.
The U.S., the international law enforcement body said, is one of the biggest customers for Interpol's database, searching more than 250 million times per year, followed by the United Kingdom with 120 million annual searches and then 50 million for the United Arab Emirates.
However, many other countries do not, or cannot search for themselves, U.S. and Interpol officials said. A senior Interpol official said that in many third world countries, "ties between law enforcement and border ministries often do not exist," and the counties often do not have the information technology infrastructure to allow them to check Interpol's computerized databases.
But Noble has a message for those that can:
"For the sake of innocent passengers who go through invasive security measures prior to boarding flights in order to get to their destination safely, I sincerely hope that governments and airlines worldwide will learn from the tragedy of missing flight MH 370 and begin to screen all passengers' passports prior to allowing them to board flights. Doing so will indeed take us a step closer to ensuring safer travel," Noble said.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, with 239 passengers on board, disappeared Saturday on its way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China in calm weather with no explanation. Adding to the growing mystery, Malaysian authorities said the plane may have turned back before falling out of radar range, according to The Associated Press.