Since 9/11, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars building a mighty bureaucratic fortress against terror. The Department of Homeland Security is the Great Wall of anti-terrorism, a maze so vast it is visible from space. But if the true measure of bureaucratic power is sheer inertia, DHS is a lightweight compared to its passport-stamping colleagues at the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs. DHS needed 170,000 employees and billions in no-bid contracts to become an impenetrable monolith. The passport office is a model of streamlined inefficiency, providing unprecedented bureaucratic stasis with a workforce of just 8,000.
The passport office surged to the front lines of the war on terror in January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative began requiring U.S. citizens to carry a passport on flights to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, Americans quickly discovered the glitch: It's not easy to squeeze millions more passports out of the same old department.
The agency now admits that it badly underestimated demand, which will soar from 12 million in 2006 to 17 million this year. Agency officials tried to reverse course by suspending the new requirement, but the snake had already swallowed the mouse. Passport applications that used to take weeks now drag on for months. Travelers in a hurry can pay more for expedited service, only to find that expedition, too, is best measured in seasons.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & s I discovered this summer, dismal statistics don't quite capture the Kafka-esque frustration of the passport experience. Back in June, my family and I set out to renew our passports. Well aware of the backlog, we applied in person at the Post Office, paid an extra $60 apiece for rush delivery, and spotted the agency two full months until our trip.
A few weeks after we applied, the State Department sent us a postcard with an 800 number and Website to track our passports' progress. Both the hotline and Website are designed to report what you already knew: Your passport isn't ready.
I had a bad feeling about our chances, so with two weeks to go before our departure, I started a daily ritual of calling the hotline for help. The agents were polite, even upbeat. A few promised to send urgent e-mails to headquarters to speed up our case. With under a week to go, one agent gushed that our passports were "looking really good!"
Agents assured me that if all else failed, I could sort everything out with a trip to the passport agency in downtown Washington. But 36 hours before our flight, an agent told me not to worry -- our passports were ready and would be FedEx-ed to our home the next morning, leaving us plenty of time to get to the airport for a Friday night departure to Australia.
When the morning arrived and the passports didn't, it finally dawned on me that I had been conned. The FedEx delivery was a figment of a beleaguered call-center agent's imagination. "They're looking really good!" was another helpless agent's way of saying there was nothing else she could do.
But the full extent of the con didn't hit me until I joined the teeming crowd at the passport office. The scene bore a passing resemblance to the fall of Saigon. Some people were crying. Others were screaming, either at agents or at the armed guards who herded us from one spot to another until the room became too packed to move. A few travelers were in more advanced stages of resignation, sitting on the floor staring at books of Sudoku or simply praying the dwindling supply of oxygen would hold out long enough.
A news ticker streamed across the wall with the message, "The average waiting time is 163 minutes." A clerk gave me a numbered ticket that said, "Upgraded Application." It said my estimated wait would be 5 hours, 41 minutes.
A young man who had already waited several hours explained that the average waiting time -- by that point at 186 minutes -- was just the first step, seeing a caseworker. If applicants survive that hurdle, they receive another ticket to come back later and stand for hours in another line, while the back office prints their passport.
I reached the caseworker window in a mere 150 minutes, still with a faint hope of making an evening flight. But the agent at Window 8 had other plans. She angrily questioned why I needed a passport that day, when my flight wouldn't land in Australia until two days later. I tried to explain the International Date Line, but she had already reached a verdict: Our passports couldn't possibly be done in time for us to leave, so that meant she had no obligation to complete them. And since the office was closing for the weekend, she gave me a slip to come back for them -- on Monday.
The prospect of losing three days -- or more, if the con continued -- was enough to make us throw in the towel. I went home and asked American Airlines to cancel the trip and refund our tickets.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hen a minor miracle happened. If the agent at Window 8 had been an immovable object, the agent from American Airlines was an unstoppable force. I told her our story at 5 pm on a Friday in August, when Jason Bourne himself couldn't break into the federal government in Washington. Somehow, she tracked down our passports and had them in our hands by 7:30, then rebooked our flights to leave the next day. When I asked her how she did it, she just laughed, the way a weary Russian might once have done in shrugging off the labyrinthine challenges of surviving the Soviet Union.
The mystery deepened as I looked inside the passports. Just two hours earlier, the passport office had insisted our passports didn't exist and wouldn't anytime soon. But according to their "date of issuance," the passports had been issued two weeks before.
Just before we departed the next afternoon, the passport office sent me an e-mail: "We have finished your passport, and it has been mailed to you." By then, we knew better than to trust anyone who promises "the passport is in the mail." But we had to admit that finally, our passports were looking pretty good.
Bruce Reed is a Coeur d'Alene native who now lives in Washington, D.C. His column, "The Has-Been," is on Slate.com, where this article first appeared.