The United States is refusing to participate in a new aviation-security program designed to stop people from even buying a plane ticket if they're using stolen or bogus passports, the head of Interpol said.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said he was surprised to learn that U.S. officials will not enter his agency's new I-Checkit program, scheduled to kick off in the coming weeks. The system would add a new layer of security and would apply to Americans traveling with U.S. passports, even if they're not going through American airports.
"The U.S. should embrace (the program) enthusiastically," Noble, the only American to lead the global police organization, told ABC News. "I'm 100 percent convinced that ... the highest levels of the U.S. government -- if they knew about the option the U.S. is not exercising -- they would change it right away."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees passport control and airport security, may still decide to opt in to the new Interpol program, officials said.
The department, "in consultation with our interagency partners, is currently reviewing Interpol's proposed program and has not yet come to a final decision," spokesman Peter Boogaard said.
Regardless of the final decision, Boogaard insisted that the United States is aggressive when it comes to aviation security.
"Any international airport that has a direct flight to the United States must abide by strict U.S. security measures, which include appropriate verification of all travel documents," Boogaard said.
"Additionally, since 2008, prior to departure, U.S. Customs and Border Protection vets all travelers for inbound and outbound flights to and from the United States, as well as any flight that travels through U.S. airspace, through the Advanced Passenger Information System and against Interpol databases, and does a thorough review of all relevant domestic and international criminal databases, for any issues of concern including reports of stolen documents," he said.
The new program would supplement U.S. measures, Noble said, because it would flag problems with American passports for travellers who are not passing through American airports during their trips.
"It's a huge void," Noble said. "We'll find a U.S. passport anywhere in the world, if the person using it is trying to board a plane of an airline participating in Interpol's I-Checkit program."
Passport security is a key focus of Interpol's work and it has taken on even more significance in the weeks since Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared after falling off radar near Vietnam. Among the passengers on board, the plane was carrying two men who were able to buy tickets and board using passports purchased on the black market.
The new Interpol initiative will allow airlines to check Interpol's database before issuing a ticket -- much the way credit cards are run through bank systems to ensure they're not stolen or deactivated. If a passport number comes back as stolen or bogus, the airline would be alerted by Interpol directly. As it stands now, tickets can be issued to travellers who are using bogus documents; they would only get stopped by passport-control agents if they're caught.
With the U.S. and a small handful of countries refusing to participate in the program, Noble said, Interpol's system could wind up detecting a problem with a passport but being barred from from alerting any airlines.
"Imagine your passport's been stolen," Noble said. "Imagine the passport's been stolen by a terrorist who wants to blow up a plane. And imagine it's a U.S. passport. And imagine the airline the person wants to board is participating in our system. Under the U.S. model, we wouldn't be able to tell the airline 'don't let the passenger board before you ask more questions about the passport,' even though we know it. Which means the airline is going to say, 'You knew of a risk, you could have told us, but you decided not to tell us.'"
Once the new program is fully in place for airlines, Interpol plans to expand it to cruise lines and other types of transportation and travel companies.
After Flight MH370 disappeared in March, it was revealed that Malaysian Airlines did not access Interpol's database of stolen passports. Since that jet vanished, Noble said Malaysia's government has committed to using the database and participating in the new I-Checkit program.
Noble also he remains concerned about the depth of the investigation into those on board MH370 when it disappeared.
"We have no specific information that gives us any better idea or understanding of what happened, how the plane disappeared or where it might be," he stressed.
But, he added, he continues to fear that the two passengers who used stolen passports represent a clue that hasn't been investigated.
"There's so much evidence linking stolen passports to acts of terrorism or other serious crime that, any time you learn that people are on a plane with passports that are reported lost or stolen, your first instinct as an investigator has to be to determine whether or not these individuals had any link to the disappearance of the plane," Noble said. "Appears they have no link. But until every passenger on a plane's background has been scrubbed at the national level or and the international level we won't know."
He said the background of every passenger on board "needs to be examined and scrutinized at the national and international level and, until we do that, we won't know whether any other human being on the plane besides these two could be responsible for what happened."
Malaysian authorities have shared the passenger manifests with Western law-enforcement agencies. But they have not allowed outsiders from Interpol, the FBI or other organizations to review the raw security information that might yield new leads.
"Interpol's offer to participate in the task force to investigate what happened to MH370 was declined by Malaysian authorities," he said. "I offered Interpol's assistance because I believe Interpol could contribute to the investigation."