Congressional committee blasts TWIC delays,�restrictions on felons

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line staff writer | 7/12/2007

Truckers aren’t the only ones frustrated by the federal government’s pattern of announcements followed by delays for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program.

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation lashed out Thursday, July 12, at the TSA’s inability to begin enrolling more than 14 million transportation industry workers who are mandated to possess a TWIC card.

The TWIC program will require more than 750,000 port employees, longshoreman, mariners, truckers and others who require unescorted access to secure areas of ports to have background checks before being issued cards with their biometric data.

The Transportation Security Administration acknowledged last week that it was delaying TWIC enrollment until at least this fall, which is the third date TSA has set for enrollment to begin.

“I must tell you that this has been extremely frustrating,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, during a subcommittee hearing attended by officials from the TSA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the AFL-CIO, several mariner organizations and the Rainbow Push Coalition.

TWIC will combine the collection of workers’ biometric data, such as fingerprints and digital photographs,  with documentation such as hazmat endorsements and birth certificates. The cards will include technology that can be read remotely by port employees and security, and the ID will be good for five years.

Committee members and several witnesses were particularly critical of the TWIC program’s power to designate convicted felons as a “terrorism security risk” if they’ve been incarcerated within five years or convicted of a felony within seven years of enrolling for TWIC .

“Our concern though is that we not punish someone twice for something that happened seven years ago and had nothing to do with terrorism,” said Larry Willis, general counsel with the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department.

The chairman of the T&I Committee, James Oberstar, D-MN, said TWIC disqualifications should be based on serious crimes such as espionage, sedition, treason and terrorism and less about isolated felonies.

Applicants who are rejected for TWIC as a security risk may appeal. However, in the meantime their employers may be notified of the government’s rejection.

Though dock workers have been characterized as being linked with organized crime, they have historically had little to do with terrorism, said Tamara Holder of the Rainbow Push Coalition.

She said that the coalition worries that many convicted felons who have changed their lives and moved forward will be discouraged by months of waiting for TWIC appeal processes and the coalition fears they will face a bleak future.

“Many of these employees will not be able to read or write,” Holder said.

In January, TSA officials announced enrollment would begin in March, though they acknowledged in April that they wouldn’t likely meet the Congressional deadline set for July.

In early July, TSA acknowledged that it would begin enrolling workers in Wilmington, DE, in October, followed by enrollment for workers at an estimated 3,200 other locations.

TSA has delayed TWIC’s implementation to ensure it’s done right the first time, according to Maurine Fanguy, a TWIC program manager with TSA.

TSA has tested TWIC enrollment and background checks on about 5,000 workers during a 12-month prototype, Fanguy said, adding that once enrollment begins, the agency will process the 5,000 applicants every day.

“For us, the stakes are tremendously high,” Fanguy told committee members.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-WA, said he had run out of patience with TWIC’s implementation and said it reminded him of sports anchor Chris Berman’s “rumbling, stumbling” characterization of a fumbled football play.

“We don’t invade citizens’ privacy very well in this country,” Larsen said.

Cummings said he wanted TSA and Coast Guard officials to keep him apprised of any other TWIC delays.

“If there are any significant problems we’d like to know about them,” Cummings told TSA and Coast Guard officials. “We don’t want to read about them in the Washington Post.”

Maritime workers are required by the U.S. Coast Guard to be enrolled in TWIC by September 2008. The program’s multiple delays have worried shipping businesses and members of the American Waterways Operators, according AWO President Thomas Allegretti.

“The continual delay in start-up makes it increasingly difficult for mariners to obtain TWIC cards in time,” Allegretti said. “DHS and Congress need to be prepared to extend the September 2008 deadline.”

Cummings told DHS and Coast Guard representatives present at Thursday’s hearing that he would require an update in another hearing scheduled in 90 days for “clarity.”

Cummings also urged witnesses concerned with TWIC to suggest solutions that Congress can make to change the program.

“Help us help you,” he said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer

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