Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007
Going Nowhere:Months after 9/11, in one of the low points in bureaucratic history, the U.S. government mailed visas to two hijackers who had flown planes into the World Trade Center. From Iraq to the home front, American intelligence may not have improved much since then. But after a summer of dealing with the U.S. Passport Services Office, I can find one consolation. If future attacks require a passport or visa, the war on terror is won: Any terrorists will expire standing in line like the rest of us.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars building a mighty bureaucratic fortress against terror. The Department of Homeland
Security is the Great Wall of anti-terrorism, a maze so vast it is visible from space. But if the true measure of bureaucratic power is sheer inertia, DHS is a lightweight compared to its passport-stamping colleagues at the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs. DHS needed 170,000 employees and billions in no-bid contracts to become an impenetrable monolith. The passport office is a model of streamlined inefficiency, providing unprecedented bureaucratic stasis with a workforce of just 8,000.
The passport office surged to the front lines of the war on terror in January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative began requiring U.S. citizens to carry a passport on flights to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, Americans quickly discovered the glitch: It's not easy to squeeze millions more passports out of the same old department.
The agency now admits that it badly underestimated demand, which will soar from 12 million last year to 17 million in 2007. Agency officials tried to reverse course by suspending the new requirement, but the snake had already swallowed the mouse. Passport applications that used to take weeks now drag on for months. Travelers in a hurry can pay more for expedited service, only to find that expedition, too, is best measured in seasons.
As I discovered this summer, dismal statistics don't quite capture the Kafka-esque frustration of the passport experience. Back in June, my family and I set out to renew our passports. Well-aware of the backlog, we applied in person at the Post Office, paid an extra $60 apiece for rush delivery, and spotted the agency two full months until our trip.
A few weeks after we applied, the State Department sent us a postcard with an 800 number and Web site to track our passports' progress. Both the hotline and Web site are designed to report what you already knew: Your passport isn't ready.
I had a bad feeling about our chances, so with two weeks to go before our departure, I started a daily ritual of calling the hotline for help. The agents were polite, even upbeat. A few promised to send urgent e-mails to headquarters to speed up our case. With under a week to go, one agent gushed that our passports were "looking really good!"
Agents assured me that if all else failed, I could sort everything out with a trip to the passport agency in downtown Washington. But 36 hours before our flight, an agent told me not to worry—our passports were ready and would be FedExed to our home the next morning, leaving us plenty of time to get to the airport for a Friday night departure to Australia.
When the morning arrived and the passports didn't, it finally dawned on me that I had been conned. The FedEx delivery was a figment of a beleaguered call-center agent's imagination. "They're looking really good!" was another helpless agent's way of saying there was nothing else she could do.