DHS: Technology gaps slowing port security efforts

The Homeland Security Department plans to tell lawmakers Thursday that it can carry out most provisions of a new maritime security law, but that it lacks the technology to comply with such congressional requirements as having card readers for new worker identification credentials.

Until a capable card reader can be developed, ID cards will have to be checked the old fashioned way by eyeballing ID photos to make sure they match the cardholders.

In joint testimony prepared for a House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee hearing, three officials say such technology gaps prevent full compliance with the SAFE Port Act, which was signed into law six months ago.

The inability of existing devices to read ID cards that will be issued under the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program is perhaps the most glaring example of the gap between a level of security mandated by Congress and available technology.

Although deploying card readers is not an actual requirement under the new law, lawmakers from both parties have said that for the TWIC program to be effective, it must have card readers to verify the identity of workers.

The officials slated to appear at Thursday's hearing -- Coast Guard Adm. Craig Bone, Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Jayson Ahern and Maurine Fanguy, the TWIC program director -- do not provide in their testimony a timeline for deploying card readers.

"The card reader requirement is being formulated and coordinated by extensive technical input from industry and the public," the officials say in testimony obtained by CongressDaily. "In the interim, workers seeking unescorted access to secure areas will present their cards to authorized personnel, who will compare the photo, inspect security features on the card, and evaluate the card for signs of tampering."

Other technological challenges will make it hard to comply with the law's requirements for cargo container security standards and procedures, the officials say. The law requires the department to ensure that all containers are scanned abroad by integrated scanning systems "as soon as possible."

To set minimum standards for container security, "it is first necessary to ensure that there are available solutions that would significantly improve container security without significantly disrupting the flow of legitimate commerce," the officials say.

But, they add: "The department does not believe that, at the present time, the necessary technology exists for such solutions. The department is actively working with industry to test different technologies and methodologies that would provide economically and operationally viable enhancements to container security."

The department initiated test programs at six foreign ports to evaluate the technology and feasibility of scanning all shipping containers. The officials say the department is on track to meet reporting deadlines for this requirement.

The department will also scan 98 percent of all cargo for radioactive materials at the nation's top 22 seaports by the end of 2007, the officials say. The new law requires 100 percent of the cargo to be scanned at these ports.

The department is also required to deploy "next-generation radiation detection technology" at these ports. But that technology, known as advanced spectroscopic portals, is still being tested, the officials say.

"Future deployments of ASPs will allow [the department] to quickly differentiate between benign materials such as kitty litter or granite, while determining which shipments pose a true risk," they say. "This will perfectly fit with [the department's] twin goals of increasing security while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade and people."

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