The Department of Homeland Security will begin checking the names of about 400,000 longshoremen and other employees of port facilities against federal terrorist watch lists, the agency announced yesterday, six weeks after an Arab company's thwarted efforts to do work at some U.S. ports heightened concern about who should be allowed on American docks.
Homeland Security has been under increased pressure to check those handling millions of tons of goods that pass through the ports to U.S. store shelves since Dubai Ports World dropped plans to take over some operations at about two dozen ports last month.
In announcing the name checks yesterday, Homeland Security officials described them as a step toward more thorough reviews and the eventual introduction of an identification card.
A 2002 federal law required such a card, called the transportation worker identification credential (TWIC), along with background checks, for all airport, port, rail and pipeline workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. About 2 million airport workers have undergone background checks, but those for port workers and others are about two years overdue.
"It is fundamental that individuals who pose a security threat do not gain access to our nation's ports," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement yesterday. "The name-based checks will provide an immediate security boost while we simultaneously complete the work to implement a secure national transportation worker credential."
Union representatives said yesterday that they remain concerned that the watch list check could ensnare workers who are not terrorists. Similar concerns have been raised by longshoremen in the Baltimore area and nationally about the more stringent ID card process.
"As the maritime TWIC program is implemented, it must focus on rooting out true security risks and not be used to fire workers from the industry for a bad decision made years ago that has nothing to do with security," Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's transportation department, said in an e-mail.
"Due process and privacy rights must be protected, and workers must be granted the right to a fair mechanism to rebut any charges claiming they are a terrorist security risk."
For the name checks, Homeland Security agencies will collect basic information and check workers against the watch lists, which include the so-called no-fly list that prevents certain travelers from boarding commercial airliners. Immigration officials also will check for violations.
Homeland Security officials say the name checks, which are to be completed by the end of July, will cover about half as many workers as the eventual ID cards. The cards will also be required of rail workers and truckers with access to secure areas of the ports, covering about 750,000 people.
The port of Baltimore says about 20,000 workers eventually will need the ID cards.
No criminal background checks will be conducted during this round, but they will be for the ID card, said Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, the Homeland Security agency in charge of the worker checks.
It is unclear how many people are on the terrorist watch lists or why they are on the lists. Kayser would say only that several federal agencies place names on the lists.
The lack of criminal checks and uncertainty about the comprehensiveness of the watch lists has some observers questioning the value of the effort.
"Who is on the terror watch list?" said Shawn D. Bushway, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Maryland. "It's probably pretty short and unlikely to sweep out anybody. I don't know for sure, but my sense is this will be a lenient screen."
The more thorough background checks for the ID cards will be a much more substantive look into the criminal histories of port workers, probably taking into account felonies committed in the previous seven years or so. Rules governing the ID card are expected within the next few weeks, although the cards are not expected to be put into wide use until next year.
Policy questions such as how far back a worker's criminal history should be examined are holding up the ID cards, those working on the program have said. The technology to run the program, which includes biometric elements such as fingerprints or iris scans, has been tested.
"We're generally very supportive of seeing the TWIC move forward," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. "The port industry has been anxiously anticipating progress on the TWIC for the last couple of years. Having a standardized identification with biometric verification will be a big advantage for all ports."
Some congressional critics say there are no excuses for delays in the cards.
"The department should have, at the most basic level, been cross-referencing the names of port workers with those on the nation's terrorist watch lists," said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee. "It is deeply disturbing that the DHS does not recognize the urgency of ensuring that those who work in our ports, especially those in charge of security at these critical facilities, are not a threat."
Some workers, particularly longshoremen, fear that extensive checks could unfairly sweep longtime workers out of jobs. The AFL-CIO's transportation trades department, which represents the International Longshoremen's Association, said an appeals process should be developed.
Officials at U.S. ports say they do not want to lose qualified workers and need a speedy resolution. Most do little or no screening of workers because they do not want to invest in infrastructure that isn't compatible with the federal ID card program, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.