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Watchdog knocks State over seizures of Americans' passports

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© Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images The State Department’s inspector general’s office said it was unable to even determine how many passports were taken by the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a during the time period in question.

By Nahal Toosi, POLITICO

State Department officials failed to follow proper procedures as they seized passports from dozens of U.S. citizens in Yemen, leaving them stranded as the country descended into violence, a federal watchdog found.

The passport grabs, which took place under the Obama administration between 2012 and 2014, have led to lawsuits and other complaints, and exposed a lack of organization and clarity in how the department handles alleged passport fraud.

In a report released Friday, the State Department’s inspector general’s office said it was unable to even determine how many passports were taken by the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a during the time period in question because the department didn’t have a proper tracking mechanism.

“At various times, department officials listed the total number of cases at 25, 36, 37, 40, and 43,” the report states. It adds that investigators ultimately chose to focus on 31 cases that were all mentioned in a single document, but that it is likely more people were affected.

Many of the passports were apparently taken by an assistant regional security officer looking into passport fraud. Yemen has long been a major source of such fraud, with many Yemenis using false names or untrue kinship claims to gain U.S. citizenship, State officials say.

But judicial authorities have cast doubt on the department’s approach to stopping such alleged fraud in the area.

A federal magistrate ordered the department to return the passport of Mosed Shaye Omar after it was taken during an interrogation at the embassy in Yemen in 2013. The magistrate declared a statement Omar signed appeared to have been "involuntary" and seemed to have been taken after he was deprived of food, water and needed medication.

The magistrate also noted that while the department accused Omar of using a false name, it accepted his statement even though he signed it with that same name.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO on Friday that the agency had reviewed the inspector general's report, agreed with its recommended fixes and is implementing them.

"The integrity and security of the U.S. passport is among our highest priorities," the spokesperson said. "The department takes seriously our responsibility to protect U.S. borders through the vigilant adjudication and processing of U.S. passports."

The inspector general’s report does not take a stand on whether any passport fraud claims involved were legitimate or not. But it suggests the process used to take and keep the passports was confused at best and harmful at worst.

For one thing, the assistant regional security officer confiscated many of the passports after what turned out to be miscommunicated guidance from a paralegal. (The report specifically faults the department for not having a sole legal authority on passport seizures.)

In several cases, the passports were taken away and held for many months; the department insisted they had simply “retained” the documents, but the inspector general said they had effectively confiscated them. The department also routinely ignored requests for information about their passports from the affected Yemeni-Americans.

The report notes that all but one of the 31 cases ended up in the passport being revoked, but, while it avoids determining whether the revocations were justified, it points out that some of those revocations were later overturned. The report also says the department could not prove it had properly notified many of the affected Americans about the revocations.

Meanwhile, security in Yemen kept getting worse as rebel and terrorist groups gained territory. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a ultimately shut down in early 2015, as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels ousted the Yemeni government. A Saudi-led coalition has since tried to restore that government, fueling a war that has left millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation.

In its official response to the inspector general, State stressed the difficult situation in Yemen and the national security implications of making sure U.S. passports are not misused in explaining why the cases took so long to handle.

The watchdog wrote back that it “agrees that the cases presented complex questions, but the deteriorating security situation in Yemen and the risks to U.S. citizens remaining there made the resolution of such questions even more urgent.”

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World - U.S. Daily News: Watchdog knocks State over seizures of Americans' passports
Watchdog knocks State over seizures of Americans' passports
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