Undercover investigators were able to sneak into ports with counterfeit credentials.
Despite nine years of fine-tuning and more than $400 million in funding, a government-issued picture ID card used at U.S. ports provides less security than the average state-issued driver's license, a federal auditor told lawmakers Tuesday.
Government Accountability Office investigators were able to make counterfeit versions of the Transportation Worker Identity Credential card, which they used to bluff their way through security at major U.S. ports, according to a GAO report released Tuesday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
Once they were inside the ports, the investigators were able to drive a vehicle with a "simulated explosive" into a secure area.
In other cases, the investigators, using phony names and backgrounds, applied for and received real TWIC cards, the report said.
The investigators were not able to bluff their way into ports that required a separate port-specific ID, the report said.
"In our report today we reference a 2008 Coast Guard assessment that states very clearly al Qaeda considers U.S. ports and facilities to be legitimate targets," Stephen Lord, GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, told committee members. "To us that's why this issue is important."
The 2002 Maritime Security Transportation Act required TWIC IDs for port workers to reduce the chances for terrorist and other criminals to gain access to U.S. ports. About 1.72 million transportation workers are using TWIC cards now, according to the Transportation Safety Administration, the organization that oversees the program, which is slated to cost about $3 billion to fully implement.
TWIC cards contain both a photo of the cardholder and a chip with biometric information, but only a handful of ports have machines that can read the card chips as part of a pilot program.
The programs' shortfalls are a combination of too few checks during the application process and too little scrutiny by port security staff, Lord told the committee.
Officials who issued the cards typically did thorough background checks on applicants' criminal history and immigration status, but didn't adequately ensure that the individual applying for the ID was in fact the person he or she claimed to be.
"You can say you're Joe Blow and as long as no derogatory information comes back you could be provided a card," Lord said. "That's not positively identifying someone. That's a negative ID."
As an example of a positive identification, Lord cited most driver's license bureaus, which require applicants to produce electric bills or other materials to demonstrate they live in the state they claim under the name they present.
The TWIC application process also fails to properly verify information about applicants' immigration status and doesn't monitor changes in that status during the card's five-year life span, GAO reported.
TSA Administrator John Pistole told committee members he'd give the cards a score of three out of 10 in their current form and said he has asked GAO to help the agency do a "top-to-bottom review" to see how the credentialing processes can be improved.
In response to a question from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Pistole said there had been instances in which individuals on the government's terrorist watch list applied for a TWIC card. He declined to specify how many times that had occurred during the public hearing, but said it was a "very small" number.
Pistole said many TWIC cardholders do have criminal records, which he attributed to the low-skilled, low-paid nature of much port work.
The TWIC background checks aim to ferret out applicants' criminal histories, but only to reject those who present a high likelihood for aiding terrorists or committing other major crimes, he said.