Tighter Port Security Through Federal Credentials

The Transportation Security Administration is rolling out a new identification system at the port of Houston. All port employees, contractors and others who need regular access to port facilities have to go through an extensive background check and credentialing, Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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The Port of Houston is the eighth out of 140 ports to implement the new ID program. TSA Regional Security Director James Marchand says they project at least 35,000 people will go through the process locally.

"The Transportation Workers Identification Credential is designed as another layer of security. It's a smart-card that's embedded with a chip that will in fact have the identification data and the biometrics of an individual worker who works in one of the regulated ports."

TSA personnel will conduct criminal background checks on every applicant and vet each name through the federal watch list. There are certain citizenship and immigration status requirements. There are also certain criminal activities which result in an automatic disqualification, such as espionage, murder and racketeering. Other crimes, such as drug possession, arson or robbery are subject to approval depending on a variety of factors. Coast Guard Capt. Marcus Woodring is the Deputy Sector Commander for the Houston-Galveston region. He says the Coast Guard will be responsible for enforcing the TWIC program.

"About 96-97 percent of the U.S.'s imports and exports move by sea and to make the secure areas of the port even that much more secure by vetting the individuals that are in there, obviously you increase the nation's security."

Everyone from longshoremen to truck drivers will need to enroll in the program -- basically anyone who requires access to restricted areas of the port. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says 911 prompted this program, but it's taken a long time to come up with a system that would provide adequate security without crippling the economy.

"There's no question once the card gets used a while, people will come up with suggestions on ways to improve it. But in the meantime, we've got to make sure that we know who's coming into and out of the ports and we don't have to escort everybody in and out because that just takes far too long. We've got to come up with a streamlined way to let commerce flow but at the same time be safe."

An anticipated 750,000 people will be credentialed for access to the nation's ports by September of next year. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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