Arthur Frommer

Detailed passport form targets select few

The Internet is aflame with cries of alarm, anguished protests and extreme dismay over an application by the State Department that uses a new biographical questionnaire to be filled out by some people applying for an initial or renewed U.S. passport.

Accord-ing to the Federal Register, that document will require a listing of every job the traveler in question has ever held, including names and phone numbers of the employer. It also asks for every residence the traveler has ever lived in, together with names and phone numbers of the landlord or other property owner. And it contains still other demands for complex information that would require hours and hours of research to supply.

On its face, the new questionnaire would seem to reflect a State Department bureaucracy running amok, and various consumer advocates are emitting mighty screams over this interference with our lives.

It would have been helpful if these advocates had first done a bit of research and if, in particular, they had read the so-called Supporting Statement that was filed by the State Department with the Office of Management and Budget, as required by law. In that supporting document, the State Department estimates that 74,000 people a year will have to complete this biographical form.

"With just shy of 14 million U.S. passports issued last year, this means that only about one in every 200 people applying for a passport will need to complete this form."

While the form definitely appears quite burdensome, it would appear that it is targeted toward that small subset of individuals who cannot provide adequate and verifiable information of their citizenship.

These individuals currently have to go through some sort of detailed scrutiny to verify their citizenship, wrote one commentator on the new requirement.

It also appears that the new questionnaire will need to be answered if the Transportation Security Administration indicates that the applicant is not who he or she claims to be — in other words, if a red flag has been raised about the possibility of a would-be terrorist seeking a U.S. passport.

What kind of red flags? The fact that the applicant has recently traveled to Somalia. Or that he or she has lived in the border areas of eastern Pakistan.

Or that the applicant is applying for a U.S. passport despite the fact that he or she already possesses a foreign passport.

As such, these circumstances seem to justify the TSA's attempt to determine whether the applicant really is the person he or she claims to be. Several months ago, there was an eruption of protest against the pat-and-search policies of the TSA designed to protect us from being blown up during the course of a flight.

That controversy finally dwindled to only an occasional mention, in the wake of a realization by the public of the role that the TSA plays in protecting us from terrorism.

The overwhelming majority of Americans is willing to suffer a slight intrusion on our privacy to thwart the effort to bring down planes.

The same with passport issuance. If one out of 200 applicants is asked to prove their citizenship and bona fides, through detailed biographical answers that can be checked and confirmed by either the State Department or the TSA, most of us would agree that the new biographical application forms are fully warranted.