Serious shortcomings in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program have allowed undercover agents using fraudulent cards to enter many U.S. ports, leaving Congress and others to question the millions spent on the program and the effectiveness of port security.
In a report released this week, the General Accountability Office revealed serious weaknesses in how the program is managed. The congressional watchdog agency cited the absence of internal controls, such as rooting out fraud in applications, and little accountability for how money is being spent.
GAO investigators were able to obtain counterfeit TWIC cards and cards acquired through fraudulent means and use them to access secure areas in numerous ports. They were also able to drive a vehicle with a simulated explosive into a secure area. In addition, investigators found problems with criminal background checks, immigration checks and a lack of safeguards to determine if an applicant actually needs a TWIC.
As a result, the cards can’t stop unauthorized people from entering secure port facilities, Stephen M. Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
The report said that despite the millions of dollars spent on TWIC, it has been poorly tested and evaluated from the start. "DHS has not assessed the effectiveness of TWIC at enhancing security or reducing risk [to ports]," the GAO said. Further, DHS has not demonstrated that TWIC, as currently implemented and planned with card readers, is more effective than prior approaches used to limit access to ports, such as facility-specific ID cards.
TWIC was mandated under a 2002 maritime security law and it covers dockworkers, merchant seamen, truckers and others that work at ports. So far, 1.8 million people have enrolled, 1.7 million cards have been activated and $420 million has been spent, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees the program.
Lawmakers leveled harsh criticism on TSA at Senate hearing.
TWIC has become "a dangerous and expensive experiment in security," and TWIC cards "are not more useful than library cards," quipped Rep. John Mica, D-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
"Despite these alarming findings, the TSA has so far failed to close the gaping holes that plague this program," added Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., whose state includes the Ports of New York and New Jersey. "Given the critical importance of our ports, it is unacceptable that we are spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a program that might actually be making ports less safe."
Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which held the hearing, said he would soon introduce legislation to address the weaknesses revealed in the GAO study.
In the House, Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Miss., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, recently introduced legislation requiring DHS to set up national standards for the TWIC readers, which will soon be required at ports and on certain vessels.
"The GAO report gives us an opportunity to reassess this program," said Chris Coakley of the American Waterways Operators, whose members, made up of tug and barge operators, have had many problems with TWIC. "They need to go back to the stakeholders and see what might work. Why hasn’t anyone asked the American maritime industry how it can be more secure?"