Report: Passport agency hasn't overhauled system

The State Department insisted Friday that it can handle the growing demand for passports, despite congressional investigators' findings that the agency has not overhauled the system to avoid repeating last summer's backlog fiasco.

The State Department has not developed a “long-term strategy” to modernize its passport application process, according to a report issued Friday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Lawmakers had requested an investigation into the backlog that swamped passport offices last spring and summer, the result of an unprecedented 18 million applications. The high demand was spurred in part by new U.S. travel rules.

“The 2007 surge in passport demand exposed serious deficiencies in State's passport issuance process,” the report found. “Passport wait times reached record highs, leading to inconvenience and frustration for many thousands of Americans.”

As the typical four-week wait for a passport turned into 12 weeks or more, the report said, officials could not quickly locate specific applications.

The department “needs to rethink its entire end-to-end passport issuance process, including each of the entities involved in issuing a passport, and develop a formal strategy for prioritizing and implementing improvements to this process,” according to the investigators.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said he had not seen the report and could not comment in detail but he said the department has already made several changes meant to improve passport delivery. There is no similar backlog this year, he said.

“Everybody should know and understand we've already taken action,” Gallegos said. “There was a situation last year. We worked very diligently to ensure that we developed a more efficient system in processing passports, one that had a much greater capacity.”

Under intense criticism from lawmakers whose offices were swamped by requests from constituents desperate to make a long-planned trip or holiday, the department ordered mandatory overtime, brought some employees home from foreign posts to help, and sped up hiring.

By last October, the wait times had returned to normal levels, and this summer's applications has gone smoothly. The department's Web site says people can expect a passport application to be processed in about four weeks.

Some of the demand for passports resulted from new rules that required U.S. citizens traveling by air to have a passport when returning from trips within the Western Hemisphere, including Canada and Mexico. Lawmakers fear another round of travel headaches next year, when passports will be required of every U.S. citizen driving back across the U.S. border.