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All terror attacks use false passports, claims Interpol chief

Please buy my international lost and stolen database

By John Lettice, 2 Dec 2004

The 'terrorists use false ID' claim achieved a significant escalation yesterday as Interpol general secretary Ron Noble told a House of Lords Committee that all terrorist incidents involve a false passport. The UK Home Office has clearly been thinking small when it trots out the 'fact' that 35 per cent of terrorists use false IDs in support of its ID card scheme. But surely Noble over-eggs the pudding, just ever so slightly?

Actually his claim is such demonstrable rubbish that it's difficult to see how he could have said quite what the BBC report quotes him as saying: "It's been proven in every single terrorist incident that a fraudulent passport has been used." But he did - it was on Yesterday in Parliament, too. We'd offer him a list of exceptions, but we have a nagging feeling that this is the sort of thing Interpol must have already - look it over Ron, will you?

Immigration officers may however wish to study his photograph closely, as he clearly would appreciate being given a hard time when crossing borders. He was giving evidence to the House of Lords Home Affairs Committee F, on the subject of EU counter-terrorism activities, and claimed to be disturbed by the slack procedures he encountered on entering the UK. His gripe? The immigration form he was given to fill in did not ask for his passport number, even though he might have been a terrorist using a stolen passport.

It's possible this one might play to their lordships, but it's doubtful many other people - particularly at the Home Office - will be impressed. The Home Office has said (and despite appearances, it's not always wrong) that paper-based immigration card systems are largely fictional, and has even welcomed the admission by other countries that this is the case. You get them to fill in the card, take it from them, then do what with it? Usually, not a lot.

An exhibit that's been used frequently to make the terrorism-stolen passport connection is the 911 hijacker who had in his possession a Saudi passport stolen six years previously, and who might have used it to enter the US. Indeed he might have, but on the other hand he might not have - it is significant first of all that the US did not (if the passport was used for entry) have the ability to detect that it was stolen, and second that the US was not able to say specifically whether or not it had been used to enter the country. That would have been using a paper-based system with the passport number written on the form, people, so go figure.

Now, we're pretty sure that the UK has this year taken to machine-reading passports on entry as a matter of course, at least at airports, and it's also common for the passport to be run under a forgery detector. In principle the passport number can be checked against a stolen list at this point; we doubt it's happening, but it's not something we're about to ask. We are curious journalists, and likely to score protracted and interesting interviews if we show a close interest in the tech at the desk. You, Ron, are general secretary of Interpol and could ask such questions with relative impunity - we feel you missed an opportunity here.

But Noble has an agenda, and his real beef relates to the sharing of lost and stolen passport lists. Interpol has a list of 5m, while the EU has 10m, which it has agreed to share with Interpol. The UK however is not one of the countries covered by the Schengen treaty, and only set up its own lost and stolen list last December. Noble's mission, therefore, would seem to have been to persuade the noble lords to press the Home Office to share its lost and stolen data with Europe, and with Interpol.

This is not actually a dumb mission. You're not actually going to stop terrorism by reducing or even eliminating stolen passports, but you're going to go some way towards increasing security levels if you make it less likely that people can use stolen passports with impunity. And you're also going to save the people whose passports have been stolen a certain amount of inconvenience and pain. Sharing stolen passport lists and actually checking them is one of the ways you can do this (in addition, anti-forgery measures, getting a lid on fraudulent issue of passports). But making wild, headline-grabbing claims is neither productive nor fair. Sure, the UK has been slack and slow on the issue, but the EU and the US only actually started talking about the creation of an international database that would "in principle be managed by Interpol" in April of this year. It's an issue we've all been incredibly dozy about.

We note, incidentally, that Noble is reported to have "showed peers the immigration card he filled in when he entered the country on Tuesday", which suggests to us that he may have failed to hand it in. UK immigration might care to check US-bound flights for the lad in order to quiz him on his apparent irregular entry - he's sure to sleep easier in his bed if they do. ®

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