Port workers face long delays for TWIC credentials

WASHINGTON - After missing two days of work, logging countless hours on the computer and standing in long lines, Mitch Kramer says he has had it with the federal government's post-9/11 port security program.

Five months have passed and Kramer, an Oyster Bay tugboat captain, still does not have the fingerprint identification card that is part of what the government calls a critical national security program.

"We are all supposed to be working together now after 9/11," said Kramer, the president of TowBoatU.S. Oyster Bay. "It just seems like there was never any oversight of how this works."

Kramer is one of 2,000 Long Island port workers who recently began registering for security and criminal-background checks, the first step in the process to get the Transportation Worker Identification Credential.

ID card development

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress ordered the Department of Homeland Security to develop a uniform ID for at least 1.2 million port workers, longshoremen and truckers nationwide. The goal is to make sure anyone who has ready access to sensitive marine areas has the same tamper-proof card.

But nearly six years and $108 million later, the program is in disarray, critics say. Just last month, the department's own advisory group studying the project raised serious questions about its design and implementation. The group's assessment is blunt: The people who would be most affected by the program believe it is "broken," according to the report, obtained by Newsday.

Technical hurdles, pushback from unions and shifting deadlines have caused delays at every turn, leaving hundreds of thousands of port workers without the federal ID cards as they move through high-risk maritime areas, experts and lawmakers say.

"There's no reason why it should have taken that long," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. "It has to be done sooner rather than later."

A fingerprint system

Transportation Security Administration officials tout the program as the world's most sophisticated biometric identification system - which relies on fingerprints embedded in ID cards and scanned by electronic readers - and blame the delays on the difficulties of implementing something so complex.

"The bottom line is that this is such an advanced system on such a large scale," said Greg Soule, a spokesman with the TSA. "We wanted to take our time and get it right."

Security experts consider seaports to be prime targets for a terrorist attack. They represent a linchpin of the economy and are often located near important facilities and infrastructure, such as oil refineries, yet remain largely unregulated.

"You would think, for a country that could put a man on the moon in the space of a decade ... that we could pull off" the ID program, said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The execution has gone so sloppily."

Pricey programs

Many port workers say getting the card is more trouble than it's worth. That is especially the case among captains, like Kramer, who paid $132.50 for his TWIC card just minutes after paying $95 to renew his U.S. Coast Guard license, which also requires a criminal-background check.

As of Thursday, more than 440,000 workers had paid for the ID even though the devices for scanning those cards will not be tested until the end of the year, according to the TSA. Without the fingerprint scanners, the cards are little better than a simple photo ID.

Critics say the TSA made almost no progress for four years after Congress approved the program in 2002, because the agency was focused on airport security. Unions resisted too, arguing the program unfairly targeted workers, said Jennifer Sargent of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Slow distribution of cards and low enrollment among workers have hampered the program, the DHS advisory committee report said. The TSA insists the program picked up speed this summer.

Still, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, decried a "leadership void" at the TSA. "It's not like we have asked them to do something extraordinary," he said.

Howard Klein, captain of a dive boat called the Eagle's Nest based in Point Lookout, said he believes the program targets the wrong people. "If you're going to have a terrorist act it's going to be from a passenger, not a worker," Klein said. "Look what happened on 9/11."

Plan in troubled waters

A group set up to advise the Department of Homeland Security on the new port security identification card, the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee, cited problems with the program in a June report obtained by Newsday. They include:

Numerous delays in the program, including delays in card production and delivery.

Poor outreach into maritime community, leading to low enrollment and confusion over which workers need the card.

Some applicants must make as many as six trips to an enrollment center before they get their new identification card.

Security officials, including those at airport checkpoints, do not universally recognize the identification card.

The card does not look like a legitimate government document, because it has no TSA or DHS logo.