The joint TSA-Coast Guard effort to biometrically verify the identities of maritime and port workers has seriously tried the patience of lawmakers and the program's stakeholders.
During a congressional hearing Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to biometrically verify workers entering secure areas of vessels and maritime facilities at U.S. ports were routinely described as a failure.
“I cannot think of too many programs in government that have had more delays, more costs to the taxpayers, and more incidents of failing to perform,” Rep. John Mica (FL-R), the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure , said of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program.
TWIC was created to implement a requirement of 2002’s Maritime Transportation Security Act, which required individuals needing unescorted access to certain secure areas of vessels and maritime facilities receive a biometric identification card. Ten years later, the full program has yet to be implemented even though TSA has been issuing TWIC cards to covered workers who passed a criminal background check since late 2007.
The primary glitch is that TSA has failed to deploy biometric card readers, thereby undermining the intended security benefits of the 2.1 million cards already in circulation. “The TWIC is currently being used as a flash pass where the individual simply shows the TWIC to the guard who visually checks the picture on the card against the individual seeking access,” said Joseph Lawless , director of maritime security for the Massachusetts Port Authority, testifying on behalf of the American Association of Port Authorities. “Without readers, there is no way to automatically check a ‘Hot List’ of revoked or suspended TWICs.”
Under the SAFE Port Act of 2006, the Secretary of Homeland Security was required to develop a TWIC reader pilot program and publish a final rule on reader deployment by April 2009. However, the pilot program was never completed and a final rule has never been issued. The Coast Guard is expected to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking on reader deployment this fall. A final rule, however, won’t likely be published for another year.
A representative from TSA declined the committee’s invitation to appear before the committee. “TSA continues to ignore the committee,” Mica said, who then threatened to subpoena TSA testimony.
To complicate matters more, the original round of TWICs issued in 2007 will begin to expire this fall. “So, here we are, just a few months away from the five-year expiration of these cards, and now we are going to face again the cost of deploying cards that have become a joke within the transportation community,” said Mica. “It is intended to be a sophisticated federal ID that is supposed to help secure our ports, but it has yet to be used as it was currently intended.”
Two weeks ago, TSA announced a special program to allow workers with expiring TWICs to renew their IDs for an additional three years at a reduced rate with only one visit to a TWIC enrollment center. Before the policy adjustment, affected workers who have had to pay nearly $130 and travel to an enrollment center twice--first to submit to their biometric data and then come back to pick up their cards at a later date. Workers have already spent approximately $229 million to $288 million on TWIC enrollment fees, according to the committee’s briefing memo on the hearing.
Also this week the House passed the SMART Port Security Act , which included provisions that would relieve workers of renewing their TWICs until a final rule on card reader deployment is issued as well as make only one visit to an enrollment center necessary to receive a TWIC card.
The TWIC program has become so unpopular that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union voted two weeks ago to unanimously repeal TWIC. “The members of the ILWU believe that TWIC offers very little to no benefits and feel it would be wiser to spend this money on other port security initiatives,” testified ILWU Legislative Director Lindsay McLaughlin .
The ILWU questioned the security effectiveness of TWIC in relation to its members. “Workers are subjected to a criminal background check for felony convictions that in most cases do not have any relevance to terrorism using the FBI’s database, known to be error-ridden and incomplete verification of the worker’s immigration status, and other security checks,” said McLaughlin, who also noted that longshore workers generally have no idea what locked containers they come into contact with hold.
McLaughlin also argued that denying a worker a TWIC based on past criminal activity with no connection to terrorism was a form of double jeopardy that unnecessarily ruins lives. "Denying people good, paying jobs because of poor choices they made in the past is only likely to encourage people to reoffend and to destabilize families.”
♦ Photo by FredMikeRudy/Flickr