While most Americans began thinking seriously about the risk to the U.S. of terrorism through the nation’s ports during the recent attempt by a Dubai-owned company to take over management of all or portions of over 20 East and Gulf Coast harbors, the Department of Homeland Security has been thinking about the problem since Sept. 11, 2001 – but it still hasn’t been able to implement federal identification cards mandated for all harbor workers in 2002.

The ID system is almost two years past its deadline, and, despite renewed pledges to bring the program operational, many of the same bureaucratic hurdles that have delayed its implementation still exist.

When online, the program is expected to affect nearly 12 million workers, reported the Baltimore Sun. By way of comparison, the program for U.S. airports resulted in background checks for just 2 million retail, airline and airport 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.

“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.”

Some security experts say, however, more time will be needed to launch the complex program.

A 2004 prototype program, that limit background checks to matching names to the federal terrorist watch list, resulted in one company issuing about 15,000 cards in 96 days.

Despite the fact the mandate was included in the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has not yet released the rules governing the program. Without them, the required background checks and the types of information to be encoded in the ID cards remains undefined. While TSA is promising to release the rules “soon,” it normally takes one year before they become final.

A frustrated Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, said he is unable to get answers from Chertoff for why the agency didn’t settle policy issues long ago nor is he optimistic the latest round of public statements mean the program will begin soon.

“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.”

Lawrence I. Willis, general counsel for an AFL-CIO union representing longshoremen, said many harbor workers are concerned the rules for port IDs will be similar to those for credentials issued to truckers who haul hazardous materials. That program has been criticized as being too cumbersome, too expensive and too intrusive. It disqualifies drivers who’ve been convicted of certain felonies in the previous 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.

Intrusive or not, LoBiondo noted that a recent Homeland Security investigation found almost half of 9,000 truckers screened had a criminal record and some were driving with fake licenses. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he said, still issues ID cards without thorough background checks.

The South Carolina State Ports Authority implemented its own program in the absence of one from Homeland Security. It’s been able to run background checks on its 600 employees but lacks legal authority do the same for the 8,000 who work for outside firms that have access to the port.

The federal program “is something we’ve been waiting for two years,” said F. Brooks Royster, Baltimore’s port director. “We need it. We don’t want to lose experienced workers, but the point of security is to find what people are hiding.”

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