An automated system intended to protect US ports from terrorist threats has been found to be unreliable. At the same time, its implementation has made it more difficult for thousands of maritime workers to earn a living and subjected even more to civil liberties abuses.
In 2002, the US Congress passed the Maritime Transportation and Safety Act, which, among other things, required the Department of Homeland Safety (DHS) to issue Transportation Worker Identity Cards (TWIC) to all maritime workers. The TWICs were to contain cardholder biometric information. A card reader at the point of entry was supposed to recognize this information and allow port access only to those with valid TWICs.
But during a pilot program that began in 2008 at 17 US port terminals, the TWICs and card readers proved to be faulty.
When the pilot program, workers at the pilot program ports were required to obtain a TWIC at their own expense. A TWIC costs $132.50 for the original and $60 for a replacement.
To obtain a TWIC, workers were required to undergo an extensive and intrusive background check. Faulty background checks caused many workers to be denied a card, which in turn prevented them from working.
Since 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on four separate occasions found problems with the TWIC pilot program. In its most recent report, the GAO in May found that “eleven years after initiation, DHS has not demonstrated how, if at all, TWIC will improve maritime security.”
“TWIC has been a joke from the time it started 11 years ago,” said Leal Sundet, coast committeeman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). “It totally ignores the fact that marine terminals are not a high-value target for terrorists and that longshore workers on container terminals have no real access to the cargo. Second it abuses our civil liberties by subjecting us to intrusive and inaccurate background checks in order to keep our jobs.”
According to the ILWU, which represents longshore and warehouse workers on the West Coast, “While nearly 75% of those who were initially rejected decided to appeal– amounting to 50,000 applicants –and 99% of them won their appeals, the process takes around six months and they can’t work while their case is being appealed.”
That’s what happened to William Erickson, a Seattle longshore worker whose TWIC application was rejected in 2009 because the background check incorrectly reported that Erickson was involved in a forgery case.
Erickson successfully appealed the findings of the background check, but while he was waiting for a final decision, he couldn’t work, exhausted his savings, and nearly lost his home.
While the TWIC background checks were creating havoc for Erickson and other longshore workers, TWIC wasn’t doing very much to protect the ports from terrorists.
In 2006, the GAO reported that a report by a private contractor on the reliability of TWIC in its testing phase was unreliable.
Despite problems with TWIC testing, the Transportation Safety Administration implemented the TWIC pilot in 2008.
In 2009, GAO reported that DHS, which was supposed to oversee implementation, did not have a sound method “to ensure that information collected through TWIC would be complete, accurate, and representative of deployment conditions.”
In 2011, GAO found that weaknesses with internal controls “governing the enrollment, background checking, and use of TWIC potentially limited the program’s ability to provide reasonable assurances that access to secure areas . . . is restricted to qualified individuals.”
Most recently, the GAO reports that “11 years after initiation, the TWIC program continues to be beset with significant internal control weaknesses and technology issues, and, as highlighted in our prior and ongoing work . . ., the security benefits of the program have yet to be demonstrated. The weaknesses we have identified suggest that the program as designed may not be able to fulfill the principal rationale for the program—enhancing maritime security.”
As a result of the failure of TWIC and the hardship that it has imposed on workers, the ILWU has made the abolishment of TWIC one of its legislative priorities. The union is currently building support among lawmakers for withholding further TWIC funding until TSA considers alternatives for securing the nation’s ports.
“(TWIC) has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. “We were right to oppose TWIC eleven years ago, and everything that’s happened since has confirmed our concerns.”