- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

A highly touted, $70 million Department of Homeland Security program to administer high-tech, tamper-resistant security cards to help identify seaport employees is facing delays that lawmakers say could threaten the nation’s security.

Announced in April 2006 by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for delivery by the end of 2007, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) cards now won’t be required until April next year.

The biometric cards, billed as “useless to anyone other than the rightful owner,” were supposed to be issued to 1 million people at 34 locations in six states to verify the identities of the workers and help prevent unauthorized people from accessing secure areas.

Mr. Chertoff said the ID cards would improve the flow of commerce by eliminating redundant credentials and streamline the verification process.

A “help desk” designed to answer workers’ questions on obtaining the complex cards is putting callers on hold far longer than the contract mandates, according to letters sent last week by the House Committee on Homeland Security to the Homeland Security Department and the program’s contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.

“The help desk has proven to be a yet another poorly designed and managed program that is negatively impacting those individuals who compromise the valuable eyes and ears of our nation’s transportation system,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and committee chairman.

“The Department of Homeland Security must improve its oversight of this program if it hopes to salvage TWIC and prevent another contract management fiasco like Deepwater,” Mr. Thompson said, referring to the Coast Guard’s plan to modernize its fleet.

In 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress ordered that background checks be conducted on those who work at the nation’s ports. The new IDs were supposed to go to the 1 million employees at the nation’s ports, such as those who work on the docks or drive trucks.

The program requires the workers to undergo fingerprinting and background checks. Employees can pre-enroll online, but must visit a regional enrollment center to register and pay a $132.50 fee. They have to make a second trip to pick up the cards.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which administers the program, said in a statement Friday that it was working with its contractors to “ensure their obligations are being met, specifically, performance standards for wait times on the help desk and responding to the individuals’ inquiries.”

TSA has described the new cards as a “vital security measure that will ensure individuals who pose a threat do not gain unescorted access to secure areas of the nation’s maritime transportation system.”

Lockheed Martin Transportation & Security Solutions, part of Lockheed Martin Corp., said it also was addressing the problem.

“Lockheed Martin acknowledges that wait times have increased and we’re taking aggressive steps to resolve the issue,” said spokeswoman Leslie Holoweiko, pointing to improvements such as online card status checks.

The company won the five-year, $70 million contract from the Homeland Security Department in February 2007.

The TWIC program is mandated to place employee callers on hold for no more than three minutes. According to the committee, wait times are inching toward 20 minutes, frustrating employees and employers. As of last week, the average wait time fell to 14 minutes, according to Lockheed.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has about 25,000 members subject to TWIC, says it is troubled by the repeated delays of the implementation date.

“From a security standpoint, we’re probably the most vulnerable at the ports around the country, because of the tremendous volume going through these ports,” said Chuck Mack, the group’s port division director and international vice president. “Anything that delays the security programs going into place … raises the threat of a breach.”

Mr. Mack said drivers also have been frustrated by “redundant” background checks. Many of the drivers going to the ports already have certification to carry hazardous materials, which come from the state and federal levels and require fees and background checks. He said many of the background checks are similar to the TWIC requirements, but drivers have to complete the process twice.

More than 300,000 workers are now enrolled in TWIC, according to Lockheed Martin.

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