TSA no-show angers lawmakers as they get few answers about TWIC

Friday - 6/29/2012, 5:52pm EDT

By Keith BieryGolick
Special to Federal News Radio

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee invited a senior Transportation Security Administration official to discuss its decade-old port security initiative, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, but was stood up.

Stephen Sadler, the TSA assistant administrator for Intelligence and Analysis, didn't come to the hearing to answer questions about TWIC, and the lack of answers frustrated committee members.

Instead, the Homeland Security Department — which TSA falls under — sent Joseph Servido, assistant commandant for preparedness in the Coast Guard, and Kelli Walther, assistant secretary in Homeland Security's office of policy, who both failed to satisfy the committee desire for answers to longstanding problems with TWIC.

"It's appalling that TSA would thumb their nose at the committee," said committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who called for a recess during witness testimony because of his frustration over Homeland Security and TSA's inability to send informed witnesses to the hearing. "That they would send a witness who's so unprepared and then have the nerve to sit there and say, 'Well, TSA has the answer to that,' but they won't show them up."

Walther and Servido couldn't answer questions about the cost of the program, its timetable for completion or the reasons behind the lack of promised capabilities.

Congress mandated TWIC as part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act in the initial years after the 9/11 attacks. Under TWIC, lawmakers instructed TSA to provide maritime workers, who needed access to high security areas, with biometric identification cards in order to tighten security at our nation's ports.

Enacted in 2002, the program just "goes on and on spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars," Mica said. The failure to finalize standards for TWIC cards has cost taxpayers $3.2 billion and left the nation's ports unsecured, he said.

Lindsay McLaughlin, legislative director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said despite an unfathomable cost, TWIC cards don't even achieve a real increase in port security.

"It is difficult to comprehend what particular access longshore workers have that warrants the TWIC program's extreme degree of scrutiny and public expense," McLaughlin said. "In a modern container facility, the longshore worker has no access to the cargo because it is sealed or locked in a container. Nor does a longshore worker know what any particular container holds."

She said background checks required to obtain TWIC cards are misguided and have cost some workers, through no fault of their own, their life savings, McLaughlin said.

"In 2009, when Washington state port workers were required to get a security clearance, ILWU member William Ericson was unable to obtain it; a background check wrongly showed that there was a pending case of forgery against him," McLaughlin said. "Mr. Ericson had worked at the Port of Seattle for 12 years. Mr. Ericson was out of work for 6 months, had exhausted his savings, and came very close to having his house foreclosed upon even though he had done nothing wrong."

Another case saw a longshoreman born on a military base overseas drain his life earnings waiting for military documentation of his birth to satisfy immigration requirements in the law, McLaughlin said.

"The income losses and emotional suffering that TWIC caused these workers and others like them and their families cannot be remedied," she said.

Mica said he too disapproved of the program, and didn't understand why it was so difficult when the Defense Department already developed a secure ID card that meets all the criteria his committee looked for, including biometric, iris, thumb and palm capabilities.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security continues to go down a path that is wasting money, he said. TSA has handed out 275 readers without finalized standards, Servido testified.

"We've had GAO test what's out there, and they've found it's very easy to subvert what has been issued since we don't have a reader and we don't have full biometric capability in the card," Mica said. "You could take something you get out of a Cracker Jack box and probably take it to the port and get in."

That lack of security could be the most disappointing aspect of the TWIC program, Mica said.

"We've heard the frustration of both labor and also our ports; what we have in place is not acceptable. The delays are just beyond comprehension, the inability to put this program together is startling and then the cost to the taxpayers in financing this entire fiasco is just totally unacceptable," he said, before cautioning against throwing out TWIC completely. "If we don't have TWIC or TWIC doesn't work, we need to make certain we have something positive in place that does work and secures our ports and our country."

Keith BieryGolick is an intern at Federal News Radio

RELATED STORIES:

GAO: Improvement needed in three TSA screening programs

DHS coordinates interagency security at waterways, ports