Government Report Questions N.Y.-N.J. Ports

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A report by the Department of Homeland Security criticizes lax screening of truck drivers by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The report says drivers using phony documents, or having criminal records, have received passes to work at ports operated by the authority, compromising security.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Amid all the concern about port security in the future, we've learned something about port security right now. Many of the truck drivers who move cargo containers in New York and New Jersey ports have criminal records. An investigation first disclosed by ABC News says this poses serious security concerns.

Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The investigation was conducted last year by immigration and customs officials concerned about security at the New York and New Jersey ports. Agents decided to conduct background checks on the more than 9,000 truck drivers who have access to the ports using an ID card issued by the Port Authority. The agents found that almost half of those with the cards had some evidence of a criminal record.

Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey said at a House hearing yesterday that about 500 of the drivers reportedly had fake driver's licenses and that some were involved in gangs.

Representative FRANK LoBIONDO (Republican, New Jersey): The intelligence report found that truckers have been convicted of homicide, assault, weapons charges, sex offenses, arson, drug dealing, identity theft and cargo theft.

FESSLER: While that doesn't necessarily mean those drivers pose a current threat, the investigation exposed a serious security gap. Hundreds of thousands of people have access to ports, but there's no good system in place to screen them. Steven Flynn(ph), with the Council on Foreign Relations, told lawmakers that the threat to ports can come from anywhere.

Mr. STEVEN FLYNN (Council on Foreign Relations): Because you can attack a port not just by bringing stuff overseas, but just by driving a truck in it full of explosives. And there's plenty of that stuff around here as well. And so the need to get on with the credentialing process and knowing who's in the port, anybody who's in that port we should know who they are.

FESSLER: The Bush Administration has been struggling for years with a plan to require background checks and biometric ID cards for all those who work at seaports, airports and other transportation facilities. But the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC program, has been hampered by contracting and other delays.

Yesterday, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker said the administration is quote "substantially accelerating its efforts." But he noted that there is still controversy over what standards should be required.

Mr. STEWART BAKER (Assistant Homeland Security Secretary): There are not a lot of former choirboys who sign up to be longshoremen, and the longshoremen are concerned that irrelevant criminal behavior far in the past might be considered disqualifying.

FESSLER: And there are similar concerns among truck drivers. Port officials say they're frustrated with the delays. They don't want to set up their own credentialing systems until they know what the federal government will do. A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says their ID program was started in the 1990s to improve cargo flow, not as a security measure. He says the Port Authority doesn't have the power to do its own background checks, but that it will seek that power if the federal government doesn't come through soon.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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