Senators Raise Questions about Security at U.S. Ports

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked whether the mail-in program was making the process less secure by raising concerns about fraud.

Sadler said the TSA has taken steps to minimize fraud by implementing similar methods banks use to protect ATM pins.

Sadler said the mailing system represented a “tradeoff between security and convenience.”

“Definitely, it’s more convenient,” he said. “But you're losing at least one of your steps in terms of internal controls of being able to verify the person’s identity by having them come in.”

Ayotte asked whether the TWIC is enhancing port security overall.

“Are we doing better?” she asked.

“Compared to nothing,” responded Stephen Caldwell, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice issues team. “You don’t have people getting the cards who have committed espionage against the U.S. or who have committed terrorism crimes, but that’s a pretty high bar.”

The program was originally aimed at preventing a dire national security incident, not comparatively lower-level offenses, he added.

Caldwell said it is unclear whether the TWIC has actually improved security at U.S. port facilities.

“There’s been an assertion that the TWIC has improved security and we’ve seen that in the latest report to Congress,” he said. “But we just haven’t seen strong evidence supporting it.”

Caldwell said, however, that having a credential that is unique and can be used in multiple places with background checks is “useful.”

Paul Thomas, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, said the TWIC program is part of a greater security system.

Thomas said port security has been steadily improving over the last decade, but challenges remain.

“As we get further from 9/11, I think the sense of urgency decreases, and so from the Congress on down. So, the security guard at a facility would have to make sure we maintain the sense of urgency with regard to port security, because the threat is adaptive, and as good as the physical security systems that we have in place are, there are emerging threats like cyber that we have not yet addressed,” he said.

Several lawmakers on the committee called for better metrics to measure the success of all the security programs.

“We’ve spent $2.9 billion on the Port Security Grant Program with no metrics to measure whether or not we have actually improved our security. We’ve spent $2.1 billion on cargo programs on a scanning mandate that we are told will never be met. So there’s $5 billion we’ve spent we have no assessment of what we’ve gotten for that money,” Coburn said.