Does anyone in the federal government understand the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program?
The recent report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) details the latest revelations on the failure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to properly classify maritime threats or to communicate threats to other agencies. Whether the report speaks more to FBI failures, or to the pointlessness of the entire TWIC program, is an open question.
While the Coast Guard is the primary federal agency concerned with port security, and the National Maritime Center issues merchant mariner credentials and TWICs, the FBI is supposed to conduct background checks on TWIC applicants. This typically involves cross-checking their names and data (such as birthdates, addresses and Social Security numbers) against information on various federal databases, including no-fly lists and terror watchlists.
It should not be possible for anyone on any of these lists to get a TWIC, yet it happened more than once. We don’t know how many times, exactly, but the report does say that the FBI had 214 “encounters” involving TWIC-holders. The report shows that the FBI failed many times to classify incidents involving TWIC-holders as related to “maritime” or “transportation” in their database.
What’s more disturbing, the OIG’s report says, is that “FBI agents we spoke to who provided input on these individuals did not adequately understand the TWIC program. Some agents were unable to explain what a TWIC was and what access it granted, and others had not fully considered the impact of allowing an investigative subject continued access to secure maritime areas.”
The information often never made its way from agents to the Maritime Security Program, a separate FBI terrorism-related program within the Maritime Administration that is supposed to prevent terrorist attacks on ports.
Last August, the president signed the TWIC Accountability Act, which restricts the Department of Homeland Security from implementing any rule requiring the use of biometric readers for TWICs until after Congress receives the results of an assessment of the effectiveness of the TWIC program. This assessment has been contracted out to the RAND Corporation. That report will not be delivered to Congress until this summer at the earliest.
In September of last year, a report from another OIG office—this time from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—found that the DHS “did not complete an assessment of the security value of the TWIC program” as required by law. “As a result, the Coast Guard does not have a full understanding of the extent to which the TWIC program addresses security risks in the maritime environment.”
For example, the Coast Guard “did not clearly define the applicability of facilities that have certain dangerous cargo in bulk when developing a final rule to implement the use of TWIC readers at high-risk maritime facilities. The Coast Guard has granted so many exemptions to facilities that it estimates only 5 percent of TWIC-regulated persons are required to use the card readers that scan the biometric data. Most current TWIC readers are “at the end of their service life,” according to the DHS report.
Even after that report, the Coast Guard could not tell the Justice Department’s OIG examiners how many TWIC readers were in operation, or where. That is not only poor security practice, but it makes a mockery of the trouble and expense that mariners and port workers go through to get this document.
We can’t help but remember that the entire reason for President George W. Bush’s consolidation of federal bureaucracies into the Department of Homeland Security was precisely to prevent the kind of information “siloing” and lack of communication between agencies that contributed to the intelligence failures of 9/11.
If TWICs are not keeping ports and vessels safer but are only increasing expense and annoyance to mariners and port workers, we should get rid of the program altogether.