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One mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is how and why two men were apparently able to travel with stolen passports. Law enforcement authorities identified the two male passengers as Iranian. Malaysian police said they believe one was trying to emigrate to Germany, and likely has no links to terrorism. We're still learning details of the other man. Interpol is criticizing Malaysia for letting passengers to board this flight with stolen documents. NPR's Brian Naylor tells us how the process is supposed to work, and why it often doesn't.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Since 9-11, Interpol has maintained a database of stolen passports. It contains more than 40 million entries, according to the agency. Airlines and nations are supposed to check passenger lists against that database to prevent people from flying with false identification. But relatively few nations do. Among those that do is the United States. Former Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker helped institute the policy.

STEWART BAKER: We said to the carriers, the airliners: Before you close the door and take off on your flight to the United States, we already have to have all the airline passengers' names and passport numbers in our hands electronically, so that we can make a decision to say: Don't take off. There's somebody on that flight we don't want coming here.

NAYLOR: Baker says countries whose citizens don't need visas to enter the U.S. must report stolen passports to Interpol in 24 hours, and the passport numbers of passengers flying here must be sent online to the U.S. in advance of the flight departing.

BAKER: We've got redundant checks that ought to make it very difficult to take off on a flight to the U.S. with a properly reported stolen passport, as these evidently were.

NAYLOR: But the U.S. and Britain are among the few nations that do regularly check for stolen documents. Interpol says passengers were able to board aircraft more than a billion times last year without having their passports checked against its databases. Michael Greenberger directs the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. He says the system is broken.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: The world passport system is in total disarray, and the conventional wisdom that somehow a passport is going to keep unwanted people out of a country is just a fiction. And it is far too easy to get into a country with illegal documents.

NAYLOR: While the presence of two people with stolen passports on the Malaysia Airlines flight has drawn attention to the issue, Greenberger says the use of stolen or forged passports is rampant and has serious implications.

GREENBERGER: This use of fake passports vastly increases organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking.

NAYLOR: A 2011 Government Accountability Office report says the use of fake passports represented a key gap in the abilities of different countries to prevent terrorist travel overseas. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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