Transit-Worker ID Program Stalled

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Bush administration initiative to secure the nation's ports is bogged down in industry opposition, technology flaws and evidence that it fails to safeguard workers' privacy, according to industry and government analysts.

The rocky launch of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential threatens to delay what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared his highest priority after the Dubai port controversy in February: starting by year's end to screen the backgrounds of 750,000 U.S. workers at critical sea, air and land transportation facilities, and issuing them microchip-equipped ID cards.

More broadly, the long-overdue ID program foreshadows concerns that hundreds of millions of Americans soon may encounter as the government starts issuing similarly equipped driver's licenses, passports, federal-worker badges and immigrant-guest-worker cards in coming years.

"It's discouraging to see how really difficult it is to implement this sort of thing," said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who tracks identification measures as a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

"And it's probably going to get more complicated before it gets simpler," she added.

The transportation credential, one of the first security measures initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was envisioned as a model for new, "smart" ID cards. But a familiar list of hurdles has tripped up the program, including poor administration, indifferent oversight by Congress, insufficient funding, technological glitches and resistance from the private sector, said industry and government officials.

President Bush signed the worker-ID program into law in November 2002 as part of broader maritime security legislation. It called for vetting workers at more than 300 ports and 3,700 cargo and passenger terminals using technology that incorporates fingerprints, iris scans or digital photographs.

The program would streamline checks of criminal-background files, terrorist watch lists and immigration status for truckers, stevedores, rail and airport terminal employees, and other transit workers, among others. The new "biometric" data would make it virtually impossible for anyone other than the cardholder to use the ID.

Department of Homeland Security officials initially told port operators that they expected to start issuing credit-card-size ID cards to transportation workers by the end of 2003.

Then the troubles began.

Management turnover and indecision delayed prototype testing until late 2004. Instead of the 200,000 cards planned for the pilot program, only 4,000 were issued, even as the cost rose from $12 million to $23 million.

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department, insisted that the TSA adopt technology currently used for U.S. "green cards," which are produced in his district. The TSA paused to complete a study concluding that its alternative to the green-card technology was superior. Prototype card production was delayed again in 2005 so it could be moved to the Kentucky plant.

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