Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - In Romania, $700 and a photograph of himself got Youssef Hmimssa the bogus French passport he initially needed to enter the United States. On Tuesday, Hmimssa told members of the Senate Finance Committee how al Qaeda members in the Detroit sleeper cell tried to recruit him to falsify identification documents for them before they were arrested.
Hmimssa arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in August of 1994. After a cursory check by Customs officials, who accepted his fake passport under the name Patrick Vuillaume, he was on his way to a career as a master document forger.
"I got to the United States using the French passport. Once I got to the country, I went to the Social Security Administration, and I applied for a Social Security card," Hmimssa explained. "Within 10 days, I got it in the mail. Using that card, along with the passport, I went to the secretary of state in Illinois, and I got an ID and a driver's license."
But Hmimssa didn't stop there.
"I went to the college and took classes, all under [the name] Patrick Vuillaume, and I went to the city of Chicago and took the exam, [taxi] driving exam," Hmimssa explained. "I passed that exam, and I got a license."
After working as a taxi driver for some time, Hmimssa decided that he wanted to return to his native Morocco to visit family, but he knew that the time limit to visit the U.S. using his counterfeit French passport without a visa had expired, and he would not be allowed to re-enter the country.
"I bought an American birth certificate and Social Security card from the black market, from someone who was able to give me those documents for some money," Hmimssa recalled. "Using those documents, the birth certificate and Social Security card under a different name, I went to the secretary of state, and I got an ID and a driver's license.
"Using that ID along with the birth certificate, I went to the Post Office and applied for a passport," Hmimssa continued. "I got it in the mail after a few days."
With his new, fraudulently obtained but nonetheless real U.S. passport under the name Edgardo Colon, Hmimssa traveled illegally to Morocco for the 20 days he could do so without obtaining a visa. Then, for the second time, he illegally entered the United States using falsified identity documents.
After losing his taxi license in an unrelated incident, Hmimssa was deeply in debt. He continued driving his taxi illegally and began electronically stealing credit card numbers from his customers. He was eventually arrested by the Secret Service but was released on bond and fled Chicago for Detroit.
Al Qaeda members try to recruit Hmimssa to make fake driver's licenses
Arriving in Detroit, Hmimssa had a chance encounter with two of the four Detroit al Qaeda members in a restaurant. They convinced him to move in with them and began encouraging him to make counterfeit IDs for them.
While the al Qaeda members vehemently hated America, Hmimssa loved the country and eventually moved out after quarrels over his embrace of Western culture made him fearful. Though he never helped them obtain fraudulent identification, they were able to steal some of the blank templates he had created and the computer equipment he used to complete the forgeries.
After returning to Chicago, Hmimssa was recruited by Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi to make bogus passports, work permits and visas to help illegal aliens enter the United States and to create driver's licenses for them once they arrived. Unbeknownst to Hmimssa, Elmardoudi was an associate of the Detroit al Qaeda cell.
Hmimssa made numerous fake immigration documents for Elmardoudi but was less comfortable counterfeiting other identification cards.
"I was asked to make such documents, airport badges and FBI identification cards, but I never did that," Hmimssa explained.
"Do you think you could make a false FBI identification card?" Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the committee, asked. He appeared stunned at the answer.
"It's very easy," Hmimssa explained. "You have to have an FBI identification card. You scan it, you remove the name, and you put in a new name, and you print it."
When Baucus inquired as to the quality of Hmimssa's forgeries - which had fooled immigration officials, Department of Motor Vehicles examiners, Illinois Secretary of State employees and Social Security Administration officials - his answer appeared to leave spectators and senators alike even more shocked.
"There's [sic] a lot of people out there who will do more than I," Hmimssa said, "who are more expert than I."
Federal prosecutors noted that Hmimssa disassociated himself from the terrorists less than a month after becoming aware of their true criminal intentions. He is in jail awaiting sentencing on forgery and counterfeiting charges and has not been charged with any terrorism-related crimes.
"Mr. Hmimssa has been extraordinarily cooperative," according to the lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant United States Attorney Richard Convertino. "He's been very forthcoming.
"I think his attitude is that...this is activity that he engaged in, he's not proud of it, he's not happy about it, and if he can do anything to attempt to turn it around, I think, he's prepared to do that," Convertino added.
Investigators create counterfeit IDs, buy weapons, infiltrate government facilities
Some of those who are, perhaps, more proficient and who "will do more than" Hmimssa work for the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) within the Inspector General's (IG) office at the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
Robert Cramer is the managing director of the GAO's IG-OSI.
"Our work reveals that homeland security is vulnerable to identity fraud and, unless action is taken, individuals who intend to cause harm can easily exploit these vulnerabilities," Cramer said.
OSI special agents were able to exchange counterfeit driver's licenses for genuine driver's licenses in seven states and the District of Columbia by simply claiming to be new residents of the state or district. Investigators were "never" questioned by U.S. Customs Service inspectors when they re-entered the U.S. from contiguous countries using fake driver's licenses and birth certificates.
The OSI agents also were able to obtain Social Security numbers for non-existent children by claiming to be parents of the "newborns" and presenting counterfeit birth and baptismal certificates.
"Additionally, we breached the security of airports and federal office buildings, even driving a rented van into the courtyard of the Department of Justice, because no one questioned the authenticity of our counterfeit identification," Cramer explained.
Perhaps the most chilling finding from their probe, Cramer said, was that even some federal government security officials were seemingly not alert to the possibility of identification fraud. Many failed to follow established security procedures, not even comparing the photo on an identification to the face of the bearer.
"As a result, officials allowed one of our agents, who presented identification containing the photo of another person, to enter a federal building in Atlanta," Cramer recalled. "Another investigator entered a federal building and obtained a building pass and an after-hours access code from security personnel who did not follow procedures to verify his identity.
"In addition, this investigator was able to obtain a building pass that identified him as a law enforcement officer and permitted him to bring a firearm into that building," Cramer said.
Cramer added that even when government employees recognized problems with phony credentials, they almost never confiscated them as almost all local, state and federal agencies require their employees charged with access control to do.
Ron Malfi, director of the GAO's IG-OSI, said the threat is even more astounding if the investigations are viewed chronologically as the frauds would have been committed if part of a terrorist infiltration.
"We were able to successfully sneak into the country using fictitious names and false identification on the counterfeit documents;
"From those counterfeit documents, we were able to use those as 'breeder documents' to turn them into legitimate documents, driver's licenses, to establish a true or legitimate identity within the United States;
"Based on that, we were able to obtain firearms and had access to federal buildings.
"I guess if you draw the string out, you can see what damage could be done if these things were done in that order and for a reason that was not to test the security but to damage it," Malfi concluded.
Administration officials admit problem, try to respond
Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told homeland security officials responsible for correcting the mistakes the GAO investigation uncovered that this was not just another congressional study.
"I know your mission is very difficult, and you know it's vitally important," Grassley said. "If the General Accounting Office can do this, obviously terrorists can do it."
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said one thing was abundantly clear from the testimony he had heard.
"The Social Security card is the key for falsification of all other documents," Bunning observed. "So we've got to make it a heck of a lot tougher on the Social Security Administration to make sure that illegal aliens that come into this country with black market passports are not able to just apply to the Social Security Administration and get a Social Security number, because once that has happened, then they can falsify all other documents."
"It's a sad commentary for me to say I think we've known that for a long time," Grassley said. "Maybe it takes this hearing plus everything else that's happened over the two years [since the 9/11 terrorist attacks] to wake up to that."
Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, took over long after Hmimssa used his skills to twice breach U.S. border security. The new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said, often faces a problem of sheer numbers.
"We have to look at the 240 different types of state driver's licenses that our inspectors are expected to be expert on," Hutchinson said, adding that the U.S. needs "biometric capability for entry into our country, and exit, that will assure an identity and will help us to avoid this type of document fraud."
James Lockhart, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said the agency is trying to deal with the myriad of document integrity problems it faces.
"We currently provide over 770 million verifications a year. That's almost three verifications for every active card," Lockhart explained. "It is important to remember that when we receive a request for verification, all we can really verify is whether the information included in the request - the name, the Social Security number and the date of birth - matches the information in our records.
"It is no guarantee that the person presenting that number is, in fact, the person to whom it was originally issued," Lockhart added.
The Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act (H.R. 2971) is designed to help the Social Security Administration reduce identity fraud. The legislation, under consideration by the House, would restrict use of the Social Security number and enhance penalties for its misuse.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds, Lockhart said the Social Security Administration is making progress.
"We believe that the improvements we have implemented make it much more difficult for individuals to obtain or use Social Security numbers through fraud," Lockhart said.
Solving document integrity problems in US not enough
Even if U.S. officials get a handle on the problems they face, Hmimssa warned that will not stop determined outlaws from testing U.S. border security. Baucus asked Hmimssa whether he had trouble finding the black market sources for the fake and fraudulently obtained passports.
"Hearing you, it sounds like it's pretty open here in the United States today, it's pretty easy to make false IDs," Baucus said. "Would that be correct?"
"It's all over the world, sir," Hmimssa replied.
"Overseas, it's really easy. You have to have the right connections. You can get any passport, French, Italian or any passport from Europe," Hmimssa said. "[In the United States], same thing. You just have to have the right connections. You can get birth certificates. You can get the Social Security card of someone who's not using it or someone dead."
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