Lawmakers press for hard answers on TWIC program

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eleven years have passed since the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program was launched by the Maritime Transportation Security Act in 2002. And, evidently, patience is wearing thin in Congress.

The House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security held a hearing on the future of the TWIC program Tuesday, June 18. The panel of witnesses was bombarded with questions from lawmakers wanting to know if the program has any measured success in protecting the ports and if it is at all viable for the future.

Subcommittee Chairman Candice Miller, R-Mich., set a clear tone that the committee was underwhelmed by the program’s progress and that lawmakers would be looking for straight answers from the panel.

“However, more than 11 years later, the TWIC card, designed to prevent terrorists from gaining access to sensitive parts of the nation’s ports is currently no more than an expensive flash pass that costs workers $130,” Miller said. “Unfortunately the biometric capabilities on the card are of little use because delays in the pilot program and rulemaking processes have taken longer than ever intended.”

Testifying before the committee were Rear Admiral Joseph A. Servidio, assistant commandant for prevention policy for the U.S. Coast Guard; Steve Sadler, assistant administrator of the office of intelligence and analysis for the Transportation Security Administration; Stephen M. Lord, director of forensic audits and investigative services with the Government Accountability Office; and Capt. Marcus Woodring, USCG (ret.), managing director of Health, Safety, Security and Environmental at the Port of Houston Authority.

With the exception of Lord, the witnesses generally defended the program saying it has merit and value, has experienced success in protecting the ports, and generally needs to continue.

The GAO audits on the TWIC program have not been resounding endorsements of the program. The card reader pilot program has had issues with reader failure. Lord said because of the lack of information collected by the readers regarding errors, the GAO is unable to determine whether the readers are failing, the cards are failing, or it is user error.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., pointedly asked the panel if the TWIC program was dead. The question was prompted by an email Duncan received from a constituent who provides card readers to the program. The constituent says he and others who work in that particular business are hearing that the program is dead.

All four of the witnesses, including Lord, said the program was not dead – although Lord said it had quite a ways to go.

But perhaps the most tense part of the hearing for the majority of the panel came when Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, asked if the program justified the price tag.

“This program could cost us another $700 million to $3 billion,” O’Rourke said. “We need to know to what degree it improves security.”

Lord said the GAO has yet to see anything comparing TWIC to before and after security situations. He told the subcommittee that the presumption is improved security, “but we are skeptical and would like to see the analysis.”

Servidio said that the Coast Guard does an assessment every year.

“We take a look at all the components of port security. Access control is just part of it and TWIC is a subset of that. It’s difficult to target at one component for analysis,” Servidio told the subcommittee.

That didn’t settle O’Rourke’s concerns.

“Without data, how could I support authorizing another dime? We don’t have unlimited money to spend on security,” O’Rourke responded.

Sadler said that the program was “built from scratch and the maritime environment is very challenging. If you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, echoed O’Rourke’s concerns.

“It’s been a lot of time and we’ve spent a lot of money,” Stewart told the witnesses. “We are getting the sense that we are spinning our wheels.”

Servidio defended the program, telling the subcommittee that the program is indeed improving security at the ports.

“The greatest challenge going forward is customer service issues,” Servidio said. He cited examples like making it one trip instead of two (to apply for or renew the card) and eliminating three hours on the phone.

“I think we’ve made progress on going to the single credential, but our challenge lies in customer service,” he said.

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