Despite the renewed attention to port security that came with an Arab company's thwarted move into U.S. seaports, the federal identification cards mandated for all harbor workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks still are not likely to arrive until next year.
The system is nearly two years past its deadline and frustrating lawmakers and port directors who say the Homeland Security Department has inexplicably left a gaping hole in the security of the nation's waterfronts.
Homeland Security officials vowed to dust off the stalled badging program and last week took a step to identify companies that could help produce the badges. But they and some security experts said it would take more time to launch the complex system.
The program is expected to produce the nation's most common biometric identification card - affecting as many as 12 million workers.
"We need to finish the job of getting our transportation worker identification credential into play here in U.S. ports," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a recent speech to the Heritage Foundation.
"This is an initiative which languished for too long. We're committed to getting this under way in the next few months, and that'll be the final piece of security that we need to make sure that we are covering the entirety of the supply chain from the point of loading to the point of loading here in the United States."
Chertoff and others at the Homeland Security agency have been under intense pressure since the Dubai Ports World controversy to address some of the long-festering concerns of port security experts. They fear the ports have not gotten enough money or attention to protect against a terrorist attack, especially compared with the airports.
Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration said it will soon release the rules governing the program, but they normally take a year to become final. The rules will spell out what the background checks will entail and what type of information will be imbedded in the cards.
The program will be bigger than the one rolled out at the nation's airports after 2001 that has lead to background checks for 2 million retail, airline and airport workers. Those workers, as well as rail and pipeline workers, eventually will get the port credential that includes a biometric element, probably a fingerprint, the Transportation Security Administration said.
The cost of running the program is unknown, but largely will be paid with fees charged to workers. So far, about $70 million has been appropriated for development.
TSA already has tested the technology on a limited scale in the past few years. In 2004, it hired BearingPoint Inc., a technology consulting company in McLean, Va., to create a prototype card for several sites around the nation, mostly ports in Florida, Pennsylvania and California.
Despite some early trouble attributed to changes in the program, Gordon Hannah, the company's managing director of security and identity management, said BearingPoint was able to issue about 15,000 cards in 96 days.
The prototype system allowed workers to log onto a Web site and apply for a card once their employer keyed in their names. The workers provided background information and then went to a government center to have fingerprints and a photo scanned. They also were required to show a current ID, such as a driver's license, a birth certificate or passport.
Under the prototype program, most background checks were limited to matching names to the federal terrorist watch list.
Prototype cards were imbedded with a photo, two fingerprint images and biographical information. Scanners logged the workers in and out of the ports.
TSA now will have to decide who needs a credential and what in someone's criminal past might disqualify him from working at a port, Hannah said.
"In the true technological sense, we could move fast on this - a matter of weeks or a couple of months to begin issuing cards," Hannah said. "The longer lead items are the policy and rulemaking."
Kenneth A. Gabriel, director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrated Security and Logistics and Center for Automatic Identification Research, said it's proper to take time to decide policy questions.
The biometric technology has been around for years, used in such places as banks and the Defense Department. But the scale will be large and the government needs to set up parameters for the background checks that will protect people's rights and also accurately snare those that shouldn't be allowed to work at the seaports, Gabriel said.
The ID program also has infrastructure issues: The dirty hands of longshoremen can throw off fingerprint scans. And the program has yet to decide where to place the card scanners, which can't be used at a distance.
The depth of the background checks are of most concern to workers, said Lawrence I. Willis, general counsel for the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which represents longshoremen and others.
Some workers speculate that rules for a port credential would be similar to those used for a new program to certify drivers of hazardous materials. That credential has drawn fire from truckers, who say the application process is too cumbersome, the fees too expensive and the background checks too intrusive. The program disqualifies truckers who've been convicted of certain felonies in the last seven years.
"Our focus will be to make sure we have a program that roots out true security risks to the United States and doesn't unfairly and unjustly punish someone making a bad decision several years ago," Willis said.
Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, said he doesn't understand why the policy issues weren't settled long ago since the credential was first proposed in 2002 as part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act.
LoBiondo said he can't get answers from Chertoff and is not encouraged by recent statements the program will begin soon.
He noted that a recent Homeland Security investigation revealed that about half of 9,000 truckers checked had some kind of criminal record. Some had fake driver's licenses. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, like many other port authorities, still hands out ID cards without thorough background checks.
"There is no excuse," LoBiondo said of the program's delay. "Hopefully, we'll get somebody's attention at a high enough level to make this a priority."
Some port authorities have done background checks on their own employees such as the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
Authority chief executive Bernard S. Groseclose Jr. said the port has gone ahead with checks of its 600 employees but lacks the authority to check most of the 8,000 or so others who work for outside companies and have access to the port.
The port of Baltimore does not conduct background checks for all workers. Rather, they are issued ID cards after they present a letter from an employer that says they work at the port.
"This is something we've been waiting for two years," said F. Brooks Royster, port director, about the federal program. "We need it. We don't want to lose experienced workers, but the point of security is to find what people are hiding."