"In the true technological sense, we could move fast on this - a matter of weeks or a couple of months to begin issuing cards," Hannah said. "The longer lead items are the policy and rulemaking."
Kenneth A. Gabriel, director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrated Security and Logistics and Center for Automatic Identification Research, said it's proper to take time to decide policy questions.
The biometric technology has been around for years, used in such places as banks and the Defense Department. But the scale will be large and the government needs to set up parameters for the background checks that will protect people's rights and also accurately snare those that shouldn't be allowed to work at the seaports, Gabriel said.The ID program also has infrastructure issues: The dirty hands of longshoremen can throw off fingerprint scans. And the program has yet to decide where to place the card scanners, which can't be used at a distance.
The depth of the background checks are of most concern to workers, said Lawrence I. Willis, general counsel for the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which represents longshoremen and others.
Some workers speculate that rules for a port credential would be similar to those used for a new program to certify drivers of hazardous materials. That credential has drawn fire from truckers, who say the application process is too cumbersome, the fees too expensive and the background checks too intrusive. The program disqualifies truckers who've been convicted of certain felonies in the last seven years.
"Our focus will be to make sure we have a program that roots out true security risks to the United States and doesn't unfairly and unjustly punish someone making a bad decision several years ago," Willis said.
Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, said he doesn't understand why the policy issues weren't settled long ago since the credential was first proposed in 2002 as part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act.
LoBiondo said he can't get answers from Chertoff and is not encouraged by recent statements the program will begin soon.
He noted that a recent Homeland Security investigation revealed that about half of 9,000 truckers checked had some kind of criminal record. Some had fake driver's licenses. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, like many other port authorities, still hands out ID cards without thorough background checks.
"There is no excuse," LoBiondo said of the program's delay. "Hopefully, we'll get somebody's attention at a high enough level to make this a priority."
Some port authorities have done background checks on their own employees such as the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
Authority chief executive Bernard S. Groseclose Jr. said the port has gone ahead with checks of its 600 employees but lacks the authority to check most of the 8,000 or so others who work for outside companies and have access to the port.
The port of Baltimore does not conduct background checks for all workers. Rather, they are issued ID cards after they present a letter from an employer that says they work at the port.
"This is something we've been waiting for two years," said F. Brooks Royster, port director, about the federal program. "We need it. We don't want to lose experienced workers, but the point of security is to find what people are hiding."
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