Senators Raise Questions about Security at U.S. Ports

WASHINGTON – Senators questioned the effectiveness of security enhancements at U.S. ports imposed by Congress in the wake of a naval base shooting that left one sailor dead in March.

Representatives from various agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) testified during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month that focused on how port security has improved since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Congress empowered the U.S. Coast Guard with new authorities to ensure commercial vessels and port facilities meet minimum-security standards. In 2006, Congress passed the Safe Port Act, which, among other things, mandated that DHS meet a requirement to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound container cargo by 2012.

The department was given a two-year extension, which runs out in July. DHS has said it will not meet this deadline and is requesting another extension from Congress.

In November, several members of Congress wrote to TSA Administrator John Pistole calling for the timeline to be accelerated, noting the missed 2012 deadline.

Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote in a letter to Congress that the mandate was impractical and not the best use of taxpayer money.

“If that’s the case, we must look for a better way to address security risks while preserving the necessary speed of moving containers through our ports,” Carper said.

The committee also grilled the witnesses about the implementation of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) readers at ports.

The TSA has faced stiff criticism from members of Congress for its oversight of the TWIC program since the March shooting at a naval station in Norfolk, Virginia.

Jeffrey Savage, a truck driver, used his TWIC card to enter the Norfolk Naval Station in March and fatally shot Petty Officer Mark Mayo, who was providing security at the station. Savage was killed by Navy security forces.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked how secure the identification cards could be if Savage could slip through the TSA’s background check system.

“I’d just like your assessment on somebody with a TWIC card that gets into a port and shoots people,” Coburn asked. “How does that happen? No system’s perfect, and I’m not laying blame. I'm just saying, how did we miss that?”

TSA Assistant Administrator for Intelligence and Analysis Stephen Sadler said that Savage was cleared based on standards in place when he applied for his identification in December 2013.

Savage had two prior felony convictions, including one for voluntary manslaughter, the Associated Press reported.

“At the time that individual was vetted…the standard for manslaughter included all manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary. So when the individual came through, the crime had been committed in 2005, the conviction occurred in 2008,” Sadler said. “I believe he served about 800 days on his conviction. So he served about two and a half years. He was released from incarceration in 2011.”

“And based on the standards that we were using at the time, that voluntary manslaughter charge was not a disqualifier,” he continued.

Sadler noted that since the incident TSA has changed its policy in which a voluntary manslaughter charge will be an “interim disqualifier.” He said applicants can still appeal any decision if they are denied a credential.

The TSA began phase one of a pilot program last summer to test a new process in which applicants would make only one visit to an enrollment center to file their applications and then credentials would be sent in the mail. This would eliminate the need for a second trip to pick up the card.