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Passports often hold clues to terrorism

Jun. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By TRESA BALDAS   |   Comments

DETROIT — When a Saudi Arabian airline passenger arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport weeks ago, red flags went up, landing him in jail.

He had a pressure cooker in his luggage — a similar device was used in the Boston Marathon bombings.

He gave conflicting stories about the cooker.

And perhaps the biggest flag of them all: His passport had a page missing.

“You have got to say, ‘These are not ordinary times,’ ’’ said criminal defense lawyer James Howarth, who has represented dozens of travelers detained at the border, including the Saudi passenger, whom he believes did nothing wrong.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, passports have been scrutinized like never before as federal agents try to keep terrorists and criminals from entering the U.S. Over the last decade, the number of Customs and Border Protection agents has doubled, from about 10,000 in 2004 to a record 21,000-plus agents today.

There’s plenty keeping them busy.

In 2012, a record 98 million international travelers entered the U.S., a 12 percent increase over 2009, and the number is projected to increase up to 5 percent each year for the next five years. On a typical day, according to the border protection agency, agents inspect nearly 1 million travelers, including Americans. In 2012, the agency saw more than 350 million travelers total.

Passport fraud, law enforcement officials said, often is used to conceal criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism. The passport, they said, can provide clues to such activities, especially when it has been altered, appears phony or has a page missing.

Even the slightest tweak could get flagged.

Howarth said his client’s case offers a lesson to travelers: “Closely check and make sure that your documents are in order and that you haven’t got something that somebody would think is funny.”

Tresa Baldas reports for Detroit Free Press.

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