The long war.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Aug. 22 2007 2:34 PM

The Long War

The Passport Services Office says, "Don't call us. Call your congressman."

80_thehasbeen

Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Al-Qaida in Jamaica: When the State Department tried so hard not to give me a passport, I assumed that Clintonites must be the latest addition to the Bush administration's terrorist watch list. But judging from the passport horror stories readers have set me, millions of Americans must be on the same list. Almost every story has the same ending: If you need your passport before the next Ice Age, your best hope is to ask a member of Congress to intervene. The Bush era has come full circle—to prove you're not a terrorist, you have to hire a lobbyist.

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The most revealing tale comes from Ashley McDowell, a law student who applied for a passport in March, three months before her departure for a summer internship in South Africa. With three weeks to go, she checked the Passport Services Office Web site and found no record of her application. Her account perfectly captures the random absurdity of bureaucratic behavior:

The first person I spoke with said that he would put an "expedite note" on my application. Days passed. The second gentleman I talked to said that my passport was in the background check phase, and would be done pretty soon. More days passed. And the third time I got through I got some really bizarre news. The man said that my passport was nowhere to be found. Nothing--not my name, SSN, or birth date--brought up any kind of status for any kind of passport relating to me. The man told me to call back in an hour. I did (and amazingly reached someone!) but I was still nowhere to be found. My passport was in some sort of Consular Neverland and no one could find it. The agent told me to go back to my post office where I'd applied and request the tracking number.

The next morning I drove into Aiken and spoke with a nice lady who said there was no such thing as a tracking number and that they kept no numbers attached to applications. She could tell that I was frustrated, distraught, and really confused. I guess she took pity on me, because she then leaned over the counter and whispered, "Now don't tell anyone I said this....but call Lindsey Graham."

Ashley McDowell didn't call Sen. Graham, but she did call House Minority Whip Jim Clyburn. The Passport Services Office sent her passport by Federal Express a few days later.

There's nothing wrong with members of Congress responding to requests to cut through red tape. But something is rotten in Washington when the federal agency responsible for the red tape is the one asking.

Chuck Slothower of the Durango Herald investigated reader complaints about the Passport Services Office and reached the same conclusion. Several Coloradans beat the system by enlisting the help of Rep. John Salazar. One woman who had waited weeks for her son's passport marveled that with Salazar's help, "The passport was here in a day and a half."

No wonder Congress couldn't finish the administration's immigration bill. Members are too busy helping people navigate their way past an administration determined to stop citizens from leaving the country.

The Herald found another Durango man who spent several days trapped in Mexico in January, after United Airlines let him travel there without a passport but refused to let him board a flight back until he had one in hand. The man "called the State Department's information line repeatedly, spending hours going through recordings and receiving false promises from staffers before finally smashing his telephone to the ground in frustration." He said he never thought to call his congressman. Instead, he found himself trapped in a foreign country, going broke, thanks to the Passport Services Office's new expedited service, Midnight Express.

As usual, the Bush administration has shown little interest in taming its own bureaucratic monster—and members are happy to take credit for saving constituents' vacations. Still, it's only a matter of time before the White House attacks Congress for undermining the war on terror. The endless backlog may seem like a lot of hassle to go through in order to make American tourists carry passports to the Caribbean. Yet as President Bush likes to say, that's why we call it the Long War. We may not be doing so well against al-Qaida in Iraq. But thanks to the Passport Services Office, we've turned the corner on al-Qaida in Jamaica. ... 2:32 P.M. (link)

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