Does TWIC really work?

Checking TWIC card at the Port of Baltimore (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Transportation Worker Identification Credentials are used at the Port of Baltimore and other key transit hubs, but the TWIC program remains a work in progress. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Lawmakers are raising questions about whether the Department of Homeland Security's biometric Transportation Worker Identification Credential program is on track and providing any real security value.

At a June 4 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, ranking Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma asked the panel of federal port security officials how truck driver Jeffrey Savage used his TWIC card to enter Naval Station Norfolk in March and fatally shoot Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Mayo. Savage had a previous manslaughter conviction when he applied for the TWIC.

TWIC applicants with a voluntary manslaughter charge applying for the credential now would initially be denied a TWIC, replied Steven Sadler, assistant administrator for intelligence and analysis at the Transportation Security Administration. That ruling could then be appealed, he said.

The card, which contains the bearer's fingerprint data and is supposed to be available to card readers at critical port facilities, has been controversial almost from the program’s inception. The rollout process, and the screening of the card-holders, remain a point of contention for the agencies using TWIC, the largest standardized biometric identification program used by the federal government across industries.

TWIC cards are issued by the TSA to transportation workers, such as port employees and truckers, who have access to potentially sensitive infrastructure, to ensure they don't pose a security threat. But readers for the cards haven't been installed at all port facilities.

The program has faced numerous delays and technical difficulties since it was launched under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. Lawmakers and Government Accountability Office officials have long voiced their frustration with the program.

"Are we doing anything with TWIC? I get it. The goal makes sense, but the concern is, how are we enhancing port security overall?" Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked during the hearing. "Are we doing better?"

"Compared to nothing," responded Stephen Caldwell, GAO's director for homeland security and justice issues. "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.” He conceded, however, that the program was originally aimed at preventing a dire national security incident, not comparatively lower-level offenses.

"We had concerns about the program all along," he said, noting that the Navy no longer uses TWIC as a stand-alone credential in the wake of the Norfolk shooting.

A report presented at the hearing by Caldwell noted that while the TSA and Coast Guard have been administering the TWIC program, they have not implemented GAO's 2011 recommendations to assess weaknesses in the program.

Sadler defended the program, noting that it is the first time any government agency has tried to find out exactly who is accessing U.S. ports and to establish some kind of control over the sprawling facilities. "I’m not sure before who knew nationally who was going in and out of the ports,” Sadler said. “Every single day we have one common standard, one credential with one common background check. In some places, you once had to buy multiple credentials in the same state.”

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group