SPECIAL REPORT: OIG: Highway Watch lacked productivity, oversight

| 1/9/2009

Friday, Jan. 9, 2009 –The now-defunct Highway Watch trucking security program had worthy goals and was needed to detect and report security threats on U.S. highways, a federal investigative report concluded.

The report also states, however, that Highway Watch did not receive active participation from truck drivers who are trained into the program, and the program’s $63 million in expenditures was difficult for investigators to follow.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Thursday on Highway Watch, the trucking security program started in 2004 which reportedly amassed 800,000 members. Although just released, it is dated September 2008.

Administered by the American Trucking Association as the first DHS trucking security program, Highway Watch had a call center that accepted hotline calls from truck drivers who saw potential safety and security violations on U.S. highways.

The OIG believes the truck security program should continue, so long as the program is more accountable, has a more clear strategy and spends funds wisely “and in a transparent manner.”

The OIG noted that it agrees with opening the truck security program up to competitive bidding for fiscal year 2008, as DHS has since done.

The report noted that the Highway Watch program was criticized by other groups in the trucking industry for focusing on ATA-affiliated organizations for membership.

“ATA met enrollment targets through multi-million dollar reimbursements to state trucking associations, and sole source subcontracts, and did so at the expense of developing cooperative relationships with other highway and motor carrier industry organizations,” the report noted. “Although there are now more than 800,000 Highway Watch members, active participation in the program has been low, averaging about four to five security incident reports a day.”

Highway Watch membership participation lagged significantly after the first few months of the participant being trained, the report noted, and a substantial portion of the program’s calls focused not on potential terrorists but appeared to be reported solely because “the caller perceived” individuals to be of Middle Eastern descent or Muslim.

“Members likely confused Sikhs with Muslims, and several described their subjects as either Middle Eastern or Hispanic,” the report reads.

“Inconsistent responsibility for programmatic and fiduciary oversight hampered DHS’ ability to identify and address weaknesses in the program,” the report states.

A significant portion of the report detailed how oversight of Highway Watch was handed off between multiple agencies as security and anti-terrorism campaigns shifted responsibilities following Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2004, Highway Watch oversight came from TSA, then switched off to the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness in 2005. Office of Grants and Training took over in 2006 and FEMA in 2007.
The ATA’s Highway Watch Web site explains it has suspended the program as it explores options for continuing the program “in some manner in the future.” 
“Incident reports are no longer being processed by the call center,” the Web site states. “If you have an emergency-related call, please dial 9-1-1.”
The report can be viewed in its entirety at www.dhs.gov/xoig/assets/mgmtrpts/OIG_08-100_Sep08.pdf.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer