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Agency moves to tighten security at U.S. ports

WASHINGTON—The Department of Homeland Security this March will begin requiring 750,000 U.S. port and maritime workers to carry identification cards imprinted with their biometric fingerprints, despite delays in developing devices to read them.

The agency announced Wednesday the start of the new program, under which workers will undergo extensive background checks to obtain the cards to gain unescorted access to secure areas of U.S. ports and vessels. Installation of the card readers, however, appears to be more than a year away.

The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Coast Guard decided that more research was needed on technology for the card readers, which must be durable enough to withstand salt-water environments and able to scan cards and fingers without direct contact, Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela McArdle said. The agencies said a separate rule covering the readers would be proposed later this year.

In the interim, McArdle said, the Coast Guard will conduct spot checks with hand-held scanners to verify the identify of card holders.

With the final rule posted on the TSA's Web site on New Year's Day, the agency and the Coast Guard called it "imperative" to go forward, despite the delays, "to improve the security of our nation's vessels and port facilities."

McArdle said the agencies "can still take advantage of the screening and the background checks, so we know the backgrounds of the people who are getting these cards."

Under the regulation, applicants for the new ID card will undergo a comprehensive check of their criminal histories, immigration status and whether their names show up on TSA's terrorist watch lists.

The rule lays out what crimes or terrorism-related concerns will disqualify applicants for the new ID card. For example, money laundering is listed as a disqualifier because it is among "crimes of dishonesty and fraud and can be a means of funding terrorism," while welfare fraud and passing bad checks won't preclude issuance of the credential.

Fees for the cards, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, will range from $107 to $159, with applicants getting discounts. The card, which also will carry a digital photo of each worker, will be valid for five years.

McArdle said maritime workers will be required to sign up to get the cards on a rolling basis, starting at the most critical ports, with all workers scheduled to be enrolled within 20 months.

The announcement of the program's launch comes six months after DHS' inspector general's office warned that "existing vulnerabilities can compromise the confidentiality, integrity and availability" of sensitive data gathered from applicants. TSA said at the time that it is addressing those and other potential weaknesses in the program.

Kickoff of the program, designed to ultimately cover millions of workers in a range of transportation sectors, is the latest in a string of Homeland Security initiatives in recent months aimed at safeguarding the nation against a terror attack.

In December, the agency issued separate regulations aimed at tightening security in the storage and transport of hazardous chemicals. Earlier, it announced a contract for the development of sophisticated radiation-detection equipment for use in screening ship cargo for nuclear or radiological devices or material.

And after British intelligence agents and police uncovered a terror plot to use liquid explosives to blow up U.S.-bound planes, the TSA sharply restricted the amount of liquids that air travelers may take aboard flights.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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