The deadly shooting onboard a Navy destroyer at the Naval Station Norfolk on March 24 serves as yet another reminder of the shortcomings of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program in improving security at U.S. ports.
Navy officials say truck driver Jeffrey Tyrone Savage of Portsmouth, Va., passed through three levels of security using a valid TWIC card and then gained access to the USS Mahan (DDG 72), where he got into a tussle with a security guard, took her gun then fatally shot a sailor. Savage was then killed by other Navy security personnel.
A preliminary investigation said the motive remains a mystery. Savage had no legitimate business at the base, had no links to the ship and was not part of a terrorist plot. This was the second attack on a Naval facility in six months; a mentally disturbed man working for a military contractor entered the Washington Navy Yard in September and killed 12 people.
The incident points to underlying problems with the process through which people are screened and granted TWICs. Applicants must provide personal and biometric information and pass a TSA threat assessment check.
Savage was issued a TWIC even though he was a twice convicted felon and served time in prison for voluntary manslaughter and drug convictions. With this kind of criminal history, how was he able to pass a federal security check?
TSA guidelines don’t prohibit felons from qualifying for TWICs, unless convicted of such crimes as treason, espionage, terrorism or sedition. For these crimes, disqualification is permanent, and there’s no opportunity for a waiver. Those convicted of murder, however, are disqualified, but can ask that their cases be reviewed for approval, according to information on the TSA website.
Guidelines also say applicants are disqualified if convicted of crimes like bribery, smuggling, rape, robbery and immigration violations within seven years of the application date or if they have been released from prison within five years of the application filing. Waivers are allowed in these cases.
Surely Congress will be demanding answers from the TSA about whether it erred in granting Savage a TWIC, and whether the program’s evaluation criteria are being properly followed.
Savage’s bold entry into the Norfolk base recalls other troubling TWIC incidents cited in a highly critical General Accountability Report released last year. GAO investigators were able to create fake cards and present doctored documents and still get a TWIC. Additionally, the report found weaknesses in the background checks.
The incident also serves as reminder that the program continues to be ineffective because it is not fully operational. Although more than 2 million TWICs have been issued since the program began in 2007, the cards are little more than an expensive flash pass because very few vessels and port facilities have readers in place to verify the card-holder’s identity.
The final rule to require readers on certain vessels and high-risk facilities is woefully overdue and is still under review at the Coast Guard. It will probably not be published until later this year.