Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) today demanded that the Government Printing Office halt overseas production of electronic chips used in American passports. Schumer's letter, to the GPO's director, Robert Tapella, follows a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity which revealed a years-long failure by the agency to resolve persistent concerns about the security risks involved in the outsourcing.
Sen. Schumer is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules Administration, which has oversight of the GPO. Schumer demanded Tapella and the GPO to "take immediate action" to stop production of electronic component assembled at a factory in Thailand, which is considered the key piece of the nation's new, more sophisticated E Passport.
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Since the production of the new passports began in 2006, investigators and members of Congress have complained that the component, a chip and antenna that stores information about the passport owner, were made overseas. The GPO has previously said that the component was outsourced because no American company could make the chip.
In his letter, Sen. Schumer said there were "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."
"On a number of levels this is extremely troubling," said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security. "Something like that ought to be produced only in the United States, under only the most rigorous security standards."
Despite repeated assurances they would move production to the U.S., a key government contractor has continued to assemble an electronic component of the nation's new, more sophisticated passport in Thailand.
The factory is near the same Bangkok suburb where a notorious terrorist extremist was captured in 2003. There have been bursts of violence in the industrial city, Ayutthaya, as recently as last month.
Both the inspector general at the Government Printing Office and the agency's own security chief have warned specifically against producing the computer chip assembly in the Thai facility. One internal report obtained by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity warned of a "potential long term risk to the [U.S. government's] interests."
Robert Tapella, declined requests to be interviewed on the subject. ABC News caught up with Tapella at an industry conference in Baltimore to ask him why repeated warnings about the security of the passport supply chain have not been resolved.
Tapella said government contractors were in the process of moving work on the passport out of Thailand and into a newer facility in Minnesota. "I believe the Government Printing Office along with the Department of State, are doing everything necessary to maintain and secure the passport supply chain," he said.
The Thai factory was one of several concerns raised in an inspector general's audit earlier this year that looked into the way the GPO is producing the new e-passport a passport that is supposed to be impenetrable to counterfeiters because it stores information on an embedded computer chip that is tucked into the cover.