- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Here’s a question no one has asked since the Dubai ports deal erupted as a major election-year terrorism issue: Whatever happened to biometric identification cards for dockworkers and other transportation-industry employees? Congress mandated them over three years ago in the Maritime Transportation Security Act. They were supposed to start rolling out in 2004. It’s now 2006, and the system, now barely a pilot project, might not be ready until late 2007, early 2008 or possibly even later.

People who worry seriously about terrorist infiltration at the ports should be asking why this commonsensical program is hardly off the ground even though a law requires its creation. The 2002 law calls for “Transportation Worker Identification Credentials,” or “TWICs,” to be developed and issued to all dockworkers, truckers and others in sensitive transportation posts. The nationwide card would permit authorized workers to access secure facilities with a swipe; it would be verified by fingerprint or other biometrics; and it would enhance the value of background checks by ensuring that cardholders actually are who they say they are. Not to mention their use would — in theory at least — help federal authorities in the event of breaches or terrorist incidents because activity at transportation hubs could be more easily recorded and examined. The ambitious plan was to roll these IDs out for maritime, rail and trucking employees across the nation.

There are several legitimate reasons the program has been held up: There have been technical limitations and labor concerns to settle.

But much of the problem clearly owes to sheer managerial ineptitude. Early on, the program was delegated in two directions: To the capable hands of the Coast Guard, but also to the hapless Transportation Security Administration, which has dragged its feet through three years of implementation. The TSA has suffered repeated TWIC turnovers, and it has suffered the inattention of top leaders who have let the program languish. The American Association of Port Authorities has voiced repeated concerns about the apparent non-priority status of the TWIC program. We understand that certain sub-cabinet level administration appointees have been notoriously uninterested in this program; however, it is their constitutionally mandated duty to carry out the law as Congress has written it.

There has been much trepidation in industry and in labor unions at the prospect of a national transport-worker ID. No doubt Bush administration officials were well aware of the complaints — and should realize they will be open to hard-hitting questions on these accounts as long as the program languishes.

Enterprising, security-minded lawmakers should start asking tough questions about this program. Why has so little been done since the IDs were authorized by law? What needs to happen to make them a reality?

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