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Measured Steps Toward Safer Ports

MORE THAN A YEAR after enactment of the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act, a congressional oversight committee held a hearing on the progress that’s been made on port security. The assessment from experts was mixed.

On the plus side, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), which is supposed to reduce redundancy by creating one government ID for transportation workers, is slowly being implemented. But DHS’s new Screening Coordination Office needs to do a better job of coordinating separate, and perhaps overlapping, identity screening programs, Stephen L. Caldwell, director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told lawmakers.

Related credentials requiring background checks include hazmat transport endorsements on commercial drivers’ licenses, which are regulated by the Department of Transportation, the Merchant Mariner Document, issued by the Coast Guard, the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) card issued by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and airport-issued Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) cards, which vary by facility.

Caldwell cited progress by CBP in implementation of the Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C-TPAT.) The six-year-old program helps companies sail through customs at the border if they open up their operations to federal regulators and demonstrate sound supply-chain security. The CBP employed 156 supply chain specialists for C-TPAT in 2007, compared to 41 two years prior, but GAO also noted that the SAFE Port Act authorizes the hiring of 50 more.

The security of U.S. ports is highly dependent on that of trade partners’ ports; however, the GAO found inadequate funding among some of those trade partners to pay for increased security, especially in the Caribbean.

Another concern: CBP and the Coast Guard may have difficulty finding the resources to adequately assess and monitor foreign ports and individual overseas companies for CTPAT compliance, Caldwell told lawmakers.

Thomas S. Winkowski, an assistant commissioner with CBP, suggested another critical gap in C-TPAT coverage: China, which exports roughly $288 billion in goods to the U.S. in 2006. Since May 2007, Chinese government officials have denied U.S. C-TPAT validators access to the country to inspect supply chains.

A trip to China by CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham did not immediately resolve the problem, Winkowski told lawmakers. CBP has set the ambitious goal of noninvasive image scanning of 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers before they leave foreign ports for the United States.

Already, Winkowski said, they are conducting 100 percent scanning at a handful of foreign ports including Southampton, England; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; and Port Qasim, Pakistan. But the agency has set no deadline for achieving this objective worldwide.

Worldwide scanning may not be realistic. Caldwell acknowledged the logistical and technical challenges of this goal as well as the fact that it may run contrary to the agency’s stated risk-based approach to resource allocation. Also, if the policy is implemented, U.S. shippers may find their cargo subjected to similar scans by foreign governments.

Robert F. Blanchet, port representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said the nation’s ports are safer today but critical gaps remain. Some critics have argued that if and when the TWIC program functions as intended, it would not prevent unscrupulous TWIC cardholders from taking on cargo from non-endorsed drivers, then driving it to port for an under-the-table fee.

Presented with that scenario, TSA spokesman Darrin Keyser noted that it would constitute a criminal offense outside a port; whereas TWIC’s core purpose is similar to that of airport SIDA badges—allowing personnel to work unaccompanied inside port facilities.

TSA, which handles issuance of TWIC cards, originally set the goal of complete implementation by September. Regional port directors are currently receiving 90-day notices of mandatory compliance on just issuing cards, says TSA spokesman Greg Soule, twice the 45 days initially planned.

The other, equally important side of the TWIC program—card verification—poses its own challenges, which fall to a separate DHS agency. The U.S. Coast Guard is charged with obtaining, installing, and maintaining the TWIC card readers at ports. Their efforts have been stymied by a variety of unexpected issues including those as mundane as salt air fouling potential card readers.

Cost is another issue. Lindsay McLaughlin, legislative director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, told Congress that it was unfair to ask workers to pony up $132.50 each for their cards now when the system may not be fully functional for years.

While the TSA is expected to require card issuance at all major ports by the end of the year, current Coast Guard plans call only for fielding of test readers at four ports this year, and continued laboratory tests on new reader technology, says Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch.