‘Culture of Mediocrity’

Congressmen blast mismanaged security test at ports

Rep. Gerry Connolly / AP
• May 9, 2013 2:02 pm


The Department of Homeland Security spent millions of dollars on a pilot program for a biometric identification system that ultimately failed to provide meaningful data, a congressional hearing on Thursday morning revealed.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) system allows certain workers to enter restricted areas unescorted at ports. Workers have to pass a background check to assess whether they pose any threat to the country in order to receive the biometric identification.

The pilot program for TWIC, which ran from 2008 to 2011, cost $15 million, the TSA confirmed. The test ran at 17 ports and 100 points of access. The government has spent an additional $385 million on the program outside of the pilot test.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis found significant methodological and implementation problems with the pilot program and recommended against basing any future implementation of the TWIC system on the pilot program.

"That’s a pretty rare recommendation coming from GAO," noted Government Operations Subcommittee ranking member Gerry Connolly (D., Va.) during the hearing.

GAO Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues Stephen Lord highlighted a few problems with the TSA’s pilot program in his testimony.

The TSA and the Department of Homeland Security did not address planning problems with the pilot program that the GAO pointed out in 2009, Lord said. There were significant data collection problems, including a failure to establish a clear baseline and a failure to test for durability. Additionally, the pilot program did not test what kind of operational and cost impact the TWIC system would have on ports, Lord said.

TSA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Stephen Sadler contended that the pilot program proved what it needed to prove in order to move forward.

"TSA’s analysis concludes that TWIC reader systems function properly when they are designed, installed, and operated in a manner consistent with the characteristics and business needs of the facility or vessel operation," Sadler said in his written testimony.

The pilot program was conducted under difficult circumstances, Sadler said. The program was completely voluntary, and ports present a harsh physical environment.

Terrorists could target ports to attack America, which makes them a top national security priority, Connolly said.

"What could go wrong if we get this wrong? It could be catastrophic," he said after the hearing.

Congressmen expressed exasperation at the slow progress in implementing the program.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the ranking member of the full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, deplored the slow progress and the "culture of mediocrity" it represented.  Cummings called the TWIC identification cards "a very expensive flash pass," because of the lack of infrastructure surrounding them, including reliable readers.

"We’ve been at this for some 11 years now. If not next year, then when?" said Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.). Legislation from 2002 first mandated the TWIC program, and the TSA first began using the system in 2007.

Sadler refused to offer a timeline for the full implementation of the program. He insisted that future implementation depends on a proposed regulation that the Coast Guard issued in March.

The regulation depended, in part, on the data provided by the pilot program, Sadler’s testimony revealed.

Congressmen pressed Sadler on other options for better managing the program. They encouraged him to look at other identification systems that have been used in other harsh environments, including those used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meadows wondered aloud if the program should be scrapped altogether.

"It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel every time, but apparently we do," Connolly said.

Update, 4:08 p.m.: additional figures added