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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a problem of deadlines, apparently. Earlier this year, it delayed a requirement that states issue secure drivers' licenses. Then it postponed a new passport requirement for land crossings for Mexico and Canada. And now, it's about to miss a deadline for issuing secure ID cards to workers at the nation's seaports.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Remember last year - when concerns were raised about a Dubai company operating U.S. port facilities? And how security might be threatened? One response was a promise to speed up secure ID cards for hundreds of thousands of port workers.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at the time, quote, "We've done the piloting. We've done the testing. And now the time for further piloting and testing is over." Well, not really.
Ms. MAURINE FANGUY (Program Director, Transportation Worker Identification Credential Program, Transportation Security Administration): We are continuing to test TWIC program. We want to make sure the five key areas that I talked about that we absolutely get those pieces right.
FESSLER: Maurine Fanguy runs the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC Program, for the Transportation Security Administration. She spoke at a recent House hearing, where frustrated lawmakers tried to find out whether her agency would meet a July 1st deadline to start the program at 10 high-priority ports. Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is from California.
Representative LORETTA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): So does that mean July 1st or not?
Ms. FANGUY: We are very focused on the July 1st deadline but, again, we want to definitely focus on program integrity to make sure that we get the program right the first time.
Rep. SANCHEZ: And how about the top 10 ports? Can you list them today?
Ms. FANGUY: I cannot list them for you today.
Rep. SANCHEZ: Okay.
FESSLER: Lawmakers were not pleased. And they've since learned that the program on which the government has already spent $100 million won't begin until this fall. And that will only be at one port in Wilmington, Delaware. If all goes well there, other ports will follow.
Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi; Chair, House Homeland Security Committee): It's just another misstep by the department in its never-ending saga of not meeting deadlines.
FESLER: Bennie Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. He notes that Congress has been calling for the Transportation Worker ID card for more than five years.
Rep. THOMPSON: I can't believe that in the most technologically advanced country in the world, that simple things like an identification card would be so difficult to implement.
FESSLER: But as Maurine Fanguy tried to explain, it's not that easy collecting personal information from 750,000 port workers, conducting background checks on all of them and issuing secure biometric ID cards. One concern is that running all these information through TSA's centralized screening system will overburden the computers. That's one of the things being tested now.
Susan Monteverde is vice president of government relations for the American Association of Port Authorities. She and others in the industry have been working closely with TSA to get the ID program going.
Ms. SUSAN MONTEVERDE (Vice President, Government Relations, American Association of Port Authorities): Folks are a little frustrated but understand that they don't want to implement a system that then will have to be replaced.
FESSLER: She says there are still a lot of unknowns - such as how many truck drivers might not meet citizenship requirements to get the cards and who's going to pay the $137 per card fee. Monteverde also thinks many more people will need the cards than TSA is planning for.
Ms. MONTEVERDE: Anyone who wants to come in to a port that has unescorted access. So let's say the UPS guy wants to deliver to a facility, he or she has to get a TWIC. All the truck drivers who are bringing cargo have to get TWICs. All the dockworkers have to get TWICs.
FESSLER: And even then, ports won't have the machines they need to read and verify the cards. That's the next phase. James Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks the program is largely a waste of money.
Mr. JAMES LEWIS (Director, Technology and Public Policy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): It is a very expensive undertaking for what's a very minimal risk. And the chances that it's going to disrupt the transportation network are relatively high.
FESSLER: Much higher, he says, than the chances it will stop a determined terrorist.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.