Agency also says rules for Transportation Worker Identification Credential will be published soon.
The Homeland Security Department will begin checking the identities of port workers for the first time under a rule announced Tuesday, and soon may take new action on a long-delayed program to issue identification cards for those who access sensitive areas of ports.
The department will begin asking all longshoremen and maritime employees of facility owners and operators - about 400,000 workers, according to DHS - for names and dates of birth to be checked against terrorist watch lists, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.
Criminal history checks and the collection of biometric information, such as fingerprints, will not be included. But Chertoff promised that the agency soon will publish rules - long awaited in industry circles - spelling out its approach to the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, a biometric-based and tamperproof identification card intended for truck drivers, rail workers and all those who must access sensitive areas of ports. That includes about 850,000 workers, according to DHS.
Chertoff reiterated his prediction that the department would begin issuing TWIC cards this year.
DHS has been criticized by Congress and industry for delays and cost increases in TWIC, conceived of shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. DHS issued about 4,000 TWIC cards to port workers during a prototype phase that ended last June, and industry representatives have been waiting since to hear exactly what kind of technology will be used.
The department last month released a contract solicitation for a single firm to implement TWIC nationwide, then canceled that notice and issued a new one. The latest solicitation calls for a contractor or contractors to implement only the enrollment and help desk operations, not the identity management system, as in the previous solicitation.
The initial TWIC competition will winnow out all but the most qualified contractors, who will receive the request for proposals. The contract award is estimated for Aug. 18, according to procurement documents, and Chertoff said the publication of a notice of proposed rule-making is imminent.
The name-based checks of port workers announced Tuesday will begin immediately, Chertoff said. The Coast Guard will collect the information; the Transportation Security Administration will vet the data through the Terrorist Screening Center, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau will check individuals' immigration status.
"We will not tolerate the employment of illegal workers at our ports," Chertoff said.
Senate Democrats held a press briefing earlier in the day, criticizing the administration's efforts on port security and voicing support for legislation that would require 100 percent screening of cargo containers within five years.
"I don't think it's possible with a straight face, frankly, to make the argument that we haven't done a tremendous amount since 9/11 to raise the level of security in our ports," Chertoff said. "I'm not saying we're at the end of the road here, but we have made a considerable amount of progress going down that road."
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