The U.S. State Department issued about 4,500 passports during fiscal year 2008 to registered sex offenders (.pdf), according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO says that this number is a low-ball estimate because comparisons between State's passport database and the Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) were hampered by invalid Social Security numbers used to match passports to registered sex offenders.
The State Department, however, had a good excuse for this practice: "State has no statutory authority to deny passports to registered sex offenders, except those convicted of sex tourism," the GAO noted.
"The Secretary of State has responsibility for issuing passports to U.S. nationals and may only deny an application for a passport if there is a legal basis for denial," the State wrote in a caustic response to the GAO report. "The Department takes this responsibility very seriously."
Aside from a sex tourism conviction, the State Department can only deny a U.S. citizen a passport under certain conditions, such as probation, child support delinquency, or an outstanding felony warrant.
In the letter, the State Department accused the GAO of being sensational. The GAO's original title for the report was "Passports Issued to Thousands of Registered Sex Offenders," which lacked nuance. Instead, State wanted the report titled, "Existing U.S. Law Allows Passports to Be Issued to Registered Sex Offenders, Although GAO Found No Evidence That Sex Offenders Used Their Passports to Travel Abroad to Commit Sex Offenses." The GAO split the difference and called the report, "Current Situation Results in Thousands of Passports Issued to Registered Sex Offenders."