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The shadowy world of camouflage passports

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(CNN) — “He has pulled a hand-grenade pin and he is ready to blow up the aircraft if he has to. We must, I repeat, we must land at Beirut.”

The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 on June 14, 1985 sent the world reeling.

It was a drawn-out horror show lasting a fraught 17 days, which saw Americans singled out for beatings by their Hezbollah kidnappers, and the cold-blooded murder of United States Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem.

Like millions of others, Donna Walker, a former travel agent from Houston, Texas, watched as the scenes played out on rolling news coverage. As she did, Walker realized it was finally time to act on an idea she’d had a few years back.

“It’s not counterfeit; it’s camouflage”

The 1980s was a troubling era for American travelers. Increasingly, civilians found themselves the target of terrorism. The New York Times somberly summed up 1985 as “a year of hijackings, kidnappings, car bombings and murder”. But things had been getting bad before then.
Six years previous to TWA Flight 847, the American Embassy in Tehran had succumbed to a 444-day detainment of over 50 Americans by militarized students. It was during this episode that Walker first hit on the concept of a ‘camouflage passport’.

A counterfeit passport falsely claims the bearer is from a certain country, in order to get them through borders illegally.

The camouflage passport, however, used the name of a former country, since changed for political reasons. It wasn’t for crossing borders, either.

Walker surmised that if someone found themselves in a life-threatening situation, they could present their aggressors with a genuine-looking document claiming they were from, say, Rhodesia, rather than the US.

The aggressors would be persuaded this captive was of little political heft, and maybe afford them kinder treatment.

The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985 is said to have inspired a former travel agent to manufacture legal, 'camouflage' passports.

The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985 is said to have inspired a former travel agent to manufacture legal, ‘camouflage’ passports.

Alain Nogues/Sygma/Getty Images

In October 1987 Walker explained to Time magazine how she’d confirmed she could manufacture bogus passports from “Ceylon,” because Sri Lanka — the country Ceylon became in 1972 — no longer had claim to that name. The same rule applied to any erstwhile nation, from the British West Indies to Zaire.

Walker began selling the passports through her company, International Documents Services, for $135 a pop (offering a 30% discount for armed forces members). The documents themselves, said Time, looked impressively authentic: “Its burgundy, textured-vinyl cover is stamped with gold lettering that reads, PASSPORT, REPUBLIC OF CEYLON.”

“It’s not counterfeit; it’s camouflage,” Walker insisted. And apparently the State Department had no beef with US citizens carrying the passports, either.

180 fictional passports

Walker’s phony passport concept wasn’t exactly original. Tom Topol, who runs the Passport Collector website, explains that documents that bend and break the rules have saved many lives over the years.
Schutz-Passes” are a good example; these were Swedish passports issued to Hungarians by the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg at a time when 10,000 Hungarian Jews were being sent to the gas chambers every day. Though more or less invalid as passports, the documents were widely accepted by Nazi officials, sparing the deportation of thousands of Hungarians to their potential deaths.

Similar to the principle of camouflage passports, the “Schutz-Pass” used the guise of another nationality to help the bearer swerve immediate danger. Which begs the question: did any of Walker’s camouflage passports ever do what they were supposed to — save someone’s life?

We know the concept took off, at least to some extent.

For one thing, Walker said she’d already sold around 350 camouflage passports in 1987 — many to US government officials. Look at the European Commission’s list of 180 “fictional” passports and you’ll find a host of the camouflage variety, featuring Dutch Guiana, Eastern Samoa, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Gilbert Islands, and many more.
The UK’s HM Passport Office published a similar (now archived) list, confirming camouflage passports were at the least “occasionally encountered.”
Jeffrey A. Schoenblum’s 2008 book “Multistate and Multinational Estate Planning” suggests that following the fall of the Berlin Wall, some German businesspeople — wary of the reception they’d receive in other countries — carried camouflage passports to “avoid unpleasantness… in certain parts of Europe with long memories.”
There’s also a story claiming a group of European oil executives used camouflage passports during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to reach the safety of Jordan.

Finding anything watertight, though, isn’t easy. A US State Department official tells CNN Travel: “We do not track any statistics on the attempted usage of camouflage and fantasy passports.” HM Passport Office is similarly guarded: “We don’t issue camouflage passports so would not be able to provide comment.”

One reason evidence is so thin on the ground, suggests Topol, is that where camouflage passports have worked, it hasn’t been reported for the safety and security of the individual in question.

Camouflage passports today

So what became of the camouflage passport — are they still in circulation now?

As late as 2007, Barney Brantingham of the Santa Barbara Independent was claiming camouflage passports kits — complete with a counterfeit driver’s license or other ID — could be sourced on the internet for $400 to $1,000. Fast forward 14 years, and finding them isn’t so straightforward.

There’s no International Documents Services anymore, no bona fide-looking website openly selling camouflage passports.

That’s despite them being ostensibly legitimate. A representative of Personal Safety London — experts in global travel safety — tells CNN that it remains technically legal to possess a camouflage passport in countries including Australia, New Zealand and all European Union nations, so long as it’s solely used for self-preservation in a life or death situation.

The thing is, such documents may not be as convincing as they were 30 years ago. “With the advent of biometric documents and advances in document security measures such as watermarks and advanced holograms embedded in ID documents, it has become more difficult to portray a camouflage passport as a valid document,” says the Personal Safety London spokesperson.

The European Commission's list of 180 'fictional' passports includes Dutch Guiana, Eastern Samoa and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The European Commission’s list of 180 ‘fictional’ passports includes Dutch Guiana, Eastern Samoa and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

leah abucayan/cnn illustration

You’ll have more luck buying one of the camouflage passport’s close cousins. Go back to that list of fictional passports from the European Commission and there’s another section titled: “Fantasy passports.”

Here, you will discover the likes of “Hare Krishna Sect”, “Dukedom of New Sealand” and “Conch Republic Passport.”

The Conch Republic — like all these fantasy passport names — never existed as a recognized country; it’s an alternative identity for the Florida Keys, resulting from a tussle with the US government in 1982.
Keys residents argued they were being “alienated as Americans” and hurled conch fritters and water balloons at a US Coastguard boat. Another show of solidarity to emerge from the chaos was the Conch Republic passport — which is still in demand today. For a mere $100, an “international-quality, thread-sewn” document is yours.

Despite fantasy passports’ often realistic appearance — gold embossed crests, headshots, personal data, space for immigration stamps –you shouldn’t expect to be waved through by border security. That’s not their intended use. But there is a twist in the tale.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI reportedly approached the secretary-general of the Conch Republic, suspicious that one of the plane hijackers, Mohammad Atta, could have used a Conch Republic passport to enter the USA.

Other stories suggest times when fantasy passports might have been used to nefarious ends — the antithesis of why camouflage passports themselves were created in the first place.



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