Port worker IDs by July in doubt

Card readers lacking, Senate panel is told

April 13, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

The long-overdue identification card that is supposed to be issued to more than 750,000 port workers, including 20,000 in Baltimore, is likely to miss another deadline, the head of the Transportation Security Administration told a Senate committee yesterday.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, was ordered by Congress in 2002 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to better secure the nation's marine gateways against bomb-making materials and other weapons. The card is supposed to go to all longshoremen, truckers and others who enter secure areas.

The TSA was supposed to have 10 ports' workers enrolled in the program by July. But card implementation has been hampered by cost, the size and complexity of the project and technology. Still not ready are card readers that are supposed to bring up workers' information on security guards' computer screens at entry gates.

"We respect the deadline and April is too soon to give up on a July deadline but if it is a choice between meeting the deadline and program integrity, we will choose the latter," said Kip Hawley, assistant secretary for TSA, according to written testimony given to the Senate Commerce Committee.

TSA hasn't named all of the first 10 ports that are to get the card, although the port of Wilmington in Delaware was supposed to be first. The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore was slated for the second wave of enrollments.

The cards would be good for five years, cost an estimated $139 to $159, or up to $31.80 a year, and include "biometric" technology. In this case, the biometric element would be embedded fingerprints. Fees paid by the workers are to cover costs of enrolling workers, producing the cards and managing the system.

The system eventually is supposed to include all transportation workers and all federal government workers requiring security clearances, but it's unclear when that will happen. So far, the Department of Homeland Security has checked the names of about 750,000 workers at port facilities against terrorist watch lists and will do it again over the summer to keep the assessment "fresh," Hawley said.

The delay annoyed members of the Senate panel, including chairman Daniel K. Inouye, who said the Bush administration isn't taking the program seriously enough.

The Hawaii Democrat said Congress has appropriated $99.4 million since 2001 and TWIC "is still languishing at the Department of Homeland Security."

Republicans, including the panel's ranking GOP member, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, also said there hadn't been enough progress.

"Over four years have passed since the first legislative mandate requiring the development of this program," he said in written testimony. "The nation's ability to secure our ports largely rests in part on our ability to timely verify the identity of port workers, and prevent unauthorized access to secure maritime areas."

A spokesman at the Baltimore port called the delay "regrettable." But Richard Scher, the spokesman, said "It's more important that the end product be what it's supposed to be - a universal ID card with biometrics that will allow for unescorted access."

National union officials representing dockworkers have expressed concerns about the cost and possibly losing good workers with past or unresolved legal infractions. But locally, the longshoremen say the delays have allowed them time to resolve some questions.

"We're still working on who will pay for it," said Kermit Bowling, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, the Baltimore port's largest union. "Maybe companies, maybe shippers. We have some other ideas. ... As for losing people, we're not expecting to lose anyone."

Bowling said everyone in the local union, which has about 1,000 members, made it through the last federal checks against terror watch and immigration lists.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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