Guest Editorial: Background Requirements for Port Worker ID Cards Going Too Far

Jun. 23--The newest homeland security program oversteps - without good reason.

It makes sense to bar from the nation's critical infrastructure individuals who could actually pose a danger. That's why the new federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential program - which is rolling out with ports, ships and cruise terminals but will expand to airports and highway and transit operations - is right to require anyone with unescorted (physical or computer) access to secure areas to undergo an FBI background check. It makes sense, and is necessary, to weed out anyone who has been convicted of treason, sedition, espionage or terrorism, or certain other crimes having to do with explosives or transportation security. There can be no argument that such individuals don't belong in critical areas of our ports, airports or transit systems.

But the policy doesn't stop at common-sense limits. The new rules for port workers and merchant mariners will also bar individuals who have committed crimes that don't logically pose a threat to homeland security. Unless it can be demonstrated that those convicted of robbery or bribery or certain drug offenses or sexual abuse pose such a threat to national security, barring them from employment under this program makes no sense. It oversteps, and counts on the public's revved-up fear of domestic terrorism to allow it to happen.

Any employer - an airport or port authority or a shipyard - can decide that it doesn't want such individuals on its staff or on its site for its own reasons, having to do with its working environment or the security of its assets or the requirements of a defense contract. It could also decide it doesn't want, for example, folks with bad credit histories. It can decide to screen any of these folks out through its own hiring process. But a national program, aimed at definite goal - homeland security - is not the place to cast such a wide net in the absence of a compelling reason.

No matter how wide the net thrown at port workers, it won't make us truly secure. It will only catch folks who want to come in via the front gate. It does not address threats that could arrive by water, on ships or in containers.

And the whole issue of whether and how airport workers or passengers can be effectively screened still begs to be addressed.

The program to screen out potentially dangerous workers on critical transportation installations is necessary. Citizens must question, though, both its overreaching scope - and why, nearly five years after Sept. 11, 2001, it still isn't operational.