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The megaships that transport containers to and from U.S. shores each year enable a global economy in trade and commerce � they also may enable terrorists to conceal and detonate a weapon of mass destruction. This concern remains the underlying premise behind measures to strengthen port security, which Congress addressed most recently in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. The law mandates the scanning of all U.S.-bound cargo containers by July 1, 2012, and builds on existing efforts to enhance maritime security, such as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program. The TWIC program will screen maritime workers who have unescorted access to secure portions of vessels and facilities. That, at least, is the concept; so far, creating a “security-cleared” work force has demonstrated little more than the complexity of the task. The concept of security credentialing is a standard practice in the national security community. Before an individual can access a restricted area or perform a sensitive task, he or she must submit to, and pass, a background check. The issuing authority may examine an applicant’s work history, finances, education, relationships and psychological background, as well as any criminal record or drug use. Information is gathered from neighbors and co-workers and cross-referenced against public records and intelligence and law enforcement databases. A polygraph examination and personal interviews may be conducted � ostensibly to confirm the truthfulness of the applicant’s information, more realistically to encourage the applicant to talk. Although former CIA officer Aldrich Ames and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen � convicted spies serving life sentences for espionage � prove that credentialing is never perfect, the process usually succeeds at disqualifying those who pose a likely risk. The TWIC program extends this logic to maritime workers, requiring a detailed background check before employees may access secure areas of maritime vessels and facilities without an escort. According to federal regulation, an applicant “will be disqualified from obtaining a TWIC if he or she has been convicted or incarcerated for certain crimes within prescribed time periods, lacks legal presence and/or authorization to work in the United States, has a connection to terrorist activity, or has been determined to lack mental capacity.” The behemoth task of deploying and managing the TWIC program falls to the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard, both components of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The government estimates that 750,000 maritime workers will require a TWIC. The nature of maritime transportation and the industry’s close nexus to other economic sectors suggest that DHS has underestimated the actual scope of the program. A mechanic who regularly works within a secure area of a maritime facility a few days a month will have to obtain a TWIC � or work under the supervision of an escort. If DHS adds these “casual employees” to the mix, the number of actual TWIC workers will significantly exceed government estimates. Difficulties with compliance Efficiently credentialing hundreds of thousands of maritime workers has proven difficult, and its true financial cost is uncertain and open-ended. Although DHS intends to begin TWIC enrollment this autumn, key parts of the regulation have not been clarified. As recently as July, the government extended the compliance deadline for other aspects of the program. Despite the challenges, TWIC’s significance extends beyond those who must bear the expense and burden of the credentialing process. The concept of a “security-cleared” work force that encompasses hundreds of thousands of nongovernment personnel has evolved since Sept. 11, 2001. For example, truckers who transport hazardous material already must submit to government background screening. The maritime sector is merely the latest � and numerically largest � segment of the work force to require background checks as a de facto condition of employment. While TWIC’s vision of a “security-cleared” maritime work force appears years away, regulation may expand TWIC to cover other modes of transportation. The current hodgepodge of federal, state and local credentialing requirements will eventually yield to the sophisticated background check that is the heart of the TWIC program. In the future, those employed at airports and railyards, even bus companies and subways, likely will undergo uniform background screening. As DHS builds a credentialed maritime work force, the government must ensure that these efforts actually make the United States more secure and that no segment of our transportation infrastructure provides open entr�e to terrorists. This is an admirable, probably necessary objective that will be decades in achieving, but the government will have done little to enhance security if it fails to incorporate the lessons it learns now so that future credentialing initiatives proceed more efficiently and effectively. Steven E. Roberts, an NLJ columnist, is a Boca Raton, Fla.-based attorney who specializes in homeland security regulatory matters.

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