The FBI has alerted law enforcement agencies nationwide to the danger that terrorists could be using stolen passports to move freely across borders and enter the United States.
A recent classified FBI bulletin warns that stolen French passports "are of particular concern" because France is one of 27 countries whose citizens do not need visas to enter the United States for visits of 90 days or less. French citizens need only show their passport to gain entry at a U.S. airport.
Thousands of French passports are known to have been stolen in the past year. On July 22, 2003, two gunmen hijacked a van near Marseille in southern France and stole 5,000 blank passports. Almost two months later, on Sept. 10, hundreds more blank passports were stolen from a courier service near Lyon. And two months ago — in two more robberies in France — thieves stole 9,300 passports and burned a van — apparently to destroy evidence.
"These people knew that these documents, having a certain value, could easily be resold in the suburbs or to organized groups who would need fakes," said Stephane Berthemet, a police officer in France.
U.S. officials fear the passports may used by terrorists.
"They can sell it for money to finance their operations," said Asa Hutchinson, the Department of Homeland Security undersecretary responsible for border security. "And secondly, they can use stolen passports to get their operatives into another country or at least attempt to do so."
Blank passports allow someone to insert any photograph and any alias.
And U.S. officials know of at least one occasion in which one of the stolen French passports has shown up at a U.S. airport.
"We denied entry a couple of days ago to somebody trying to use one of those [stolen French] passports," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at a Cabinet meeting last Wednesday.
On April 17, U.S. customs agents stopped an Algerian man using a stolen French passport at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The man — who was traveling with a French national of Algerian descent who is a suspect on a U.S. government watch list — admitted he bought the passport for $300 on the black market. Both men were deported.
Officials warn the little-known, but thriving black market in stolen passports may help terrorists travel without detection. Interpol, the international criminal police organization, says in recent years 1.1 million travel documents, including passports, have been stolen or lost.
U.S. and European officials met in Brussels today to discuss plans to set up an international database for stolen passports.
The problem of stolen blank passports has spread worldwide. Intelligence officials say 80,000 blank passports have been stolen from 36 countries in recent years … including Italy, Germany and Sweden.
Citing national security, U.S. State Department officials refused today to say how many American passports have been stolen or lost.