Daily Breeze

March 10, 2006

Critics see danger in nation's ongoing lack of ID standards for harbor workers

By Toby Eckert and Donna Littlejohn
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Security checks for America's port workers are lagging because of delays in developing a uniform federal ID for transportation workers, which has been tested at the Port of Los Angeles, officials said Thursday.

Four years after homeland security officials first broached the idea of developing a Transportation Worker Identification Credential in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the program is still not up and running. The credentials would provide access to secure port areas, and the holders would have to undergo background checks.

The Department of Homeland Security recently found that ports in New York and New Jersey were failing to check the criminal histories of truck drivers and that many had felony convictions, according to news reports this week. The department concluded the problem is common at ports nationwide.

All that's currently needed to gain access at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are employee identification cards and a driver's license.

"At any given time you've got hundreds of trucks roaming the terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach," said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast. "The point is that there is absolutely no checking on who these people are. I'm sure the vast majority of them are just honest folks trying to scrape out a living, but the pay is so bad (for truckers) and conditions are so tough you're not attracting the highest quality worker."

Lawmakers expressed concerns about the situation at a hearing Thursday on port security. The issue has received renewed attention because of the controversy over plans by a Middle Eastern company to take over operations at several U.S. ports.

"I find it unacceptable that the department has allowed this program to be delayed this long. The TWIC card will be one of the primary means of keeping unauthorized personnel out of our ports," said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the House Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee.

The department has not developed a format for the card or readers, nor a procedure for background checks, nor has it determined the "biometric" identifiers, such as fingerprints, that will be carried on the cards, LoBiondo said.

Stewart Baker, assistant homeland secretary for policy, told the panel that the department has a sense of "urgency" about the TWIC and "those efforts have been accelerated."

But Kurt J. Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, said, "We are still far from implementing a TWIC system nationwide."

Information distributed by the subcommittee said proposed rules for the ID, which would include hard-to-counterfeit personal data, will be ready sometime this year, two years later than originally scheduled. The plans call for the Homeland Security Department to seek agreement on the proposal from a United Nations labor organization over a two- to five-year period.

Up to 12 million workers at American seaports, airports and other transportation hubs could be required to have the IDs, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Prototypes have been tested at numerous ports, including the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex.

Some 11,000 independent operator trucks serve the Los Angeles and Long Beach region, said Noel Cunningham, former chief of port security in Los Angeles who now owns a port security consulting firm.

"They come from all over the country, many from outside the country," Cunningham said. "Many of these truckers change IDs when they change trucks or companies."

Stallone contends the problem is rooted in the way the industry operates. "It's not a good job, so you get a lot of immigrants and people who are desperate. It's not necessarily their fault."

Addressing the situation in New York and New Jersey, Baker suggested that background checks were not conducted because of disputes between labor and management.

"It is a subject of considerable controversy what kinds of background checks and criminal behavior should disqualify someone from access to our ports," he said.

"From my experience working with our local ILWU there has not been resistance, but there has been concern that they wanted to protect their members if a person had some transgressions on their record," Cunningham said.

Frustration about the ID program and other port security issues boiled over at the hearing as Republican and Democratic lawmakers accused the Bush administration of ignoring their concerns that ports are vulnerable to a terrorist attack or the smuggling of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

They complained about a host of shortcomings, including the low percentage of cargo containers that are physically inspected and the lack of security standards for container seals.

Critics say Congress also shares some of the blame for underfunding port security, while shoveling billions of dollars into aviation security.