WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats accused the Bush administration on Thursday of bungling a much-needed port security program that has cost tens of millions of dollars and still isn't up and running.
The plan, overseen primarily by the Transportation Security Administration, calls for issuing high-tech, tamperproof ID cards to workers to gain access to secure areas of U.S. ports. The program, critics say, is beset by delays, cost overruns and missed deadlines.
The program has cost taxpayers more than $94 million, or about $60,000 per ID card, complained New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg.
"This kind of mismanagement is not fair to our workers. It's not fair to our ports," Lautenberg said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. "It's not the level of security that we need in our country."
The program, begun in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has undergone limited testing. Congressional investigators reported that 1,700 ID cards have been issued to workers during testing, well short of the program's goal of screening 75,000 workers and assigning them cards.
TSA chief Kip Hawley defended the agency's efforts and said implementing the sophisticated technology on such a large scale will take time. "It is the network behind the card that is complex," Hawley told lawmakers.
Initially, he said, the ID cards will be issued to up to 1.5 million longshoremen, port employees, truck drivers and others at maritime facilities.
TSA originally planned to begin the first rollout of the program in Wilmington, Del., late last month. But the rollout has been delayed, and could be postponed until May, according to testimony from the Government Accountability Office.
GAO's Norman Rabkin said the agency has made some progress, but he added that he is not optimistic about TSA's ability to meet future deadlines and benchmarks for the program's implementation. "There's a lot to be done here," said Rabkin, managing director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at GAO.
Congress ordered the administration to develop the card as part of port security legislation in 2002.
Under the plan, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, the TSA would collect biographical information including fingerprints, name, birth date, address and phone number.
The government would then conduct a background check on the worker, including a review of criminal records, terrorist watch lists and immigration status. Those who pass the checks would be issued an ID card.
The program calls for workers to pay $137 for the biometric card. Those who have current background checks would pay $105. The card would be valid for five years.
Groups representing truckers complain the cost is too high and the background checks will be hard to implement.
Chuck Mack, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters port division director, said many port truck drivers are exploited because they are independent contractors. He estimates there are 90,000 port truck drivers and that turnover is 100 percent annually.
"Unless we stabilize employment in the truck driving sector, doing background checks just isn't feasible," he said.