TWIC: too much time, money for a program of doubtful worth

In response to the 9/11 tragedy, Congress passed the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA 2002). It mandated that our government develop a biometric identification card for all U.S. merchant mariners, as well as other maritime workers needing unescorted access to secure areas of marine terminals and commercial vessels. With great fanfare, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card program was born. Despite problems, setbacks, and mistakes, about 1.7 million cards have been issued.

Since its inception, the TWIC program has been a burden for U.S. merchant mariners. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires applicants to appear in person at one of the TWIC enrollment centers across the country not once — but twice — to get the card. The process requires an initial visit for the applicant to be fingerprinted and interviewed, a waiting period of weeks or months while the background check is being conducted, and then another visit to pick up the card.

I have known several mariners who missed out on job opportunities while waiting for their background checks to be completed. In addition, even though a full five-year renewal of the credential costs only $132.50, there are unseen expenses involved in obtaining a TWIC.

Because there are many states that do not have an enrollment center, mariners living there are forced to incur travel costs just to obtain their TWIC card. I know an engineer who lives near Glacier National Park in Montana. The nearest enrollment center from his house is in Washington state, over 400 miles away. Nick, a galley hand from Colorado, made two 1,800-mile round trips to the Houston enrollment center. Four airline flights, two nights in a hotel, food, taxis and the $132.50 fee made the actual cost for Nick to get his TWIC card closer to $1,000.

One-fifth of the states do not have a TWIC enrollment center, which essentially penalizes the mariners and other transportation workers living there. Currently, there are none in Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. On the other hand, there are 15 in California and six in Washington state — including three within 62 miles of each other. In my opinion, a few existing TWIC enrollment centers could be relocated so that no applicant is forced to leave the state where he or she resides just to get a TWIC card.

At the end of the whole process, if all goes well, your TWIC card is issued — a credential many have been found to be of dubious value. Chris, an AB I've worked with, told me how he tried to use his TWIC for an ID when he was flying to a job from Sacramento, Calif., to San Diego. Going through the screening line before departure, the TSA employee he showed his TWIC card to didn't even recognize it, despite the fact that TSA issued the credential. Rejecting it as a proper form of identification, the airport security person asked, "Don't you have a driver's license I can see for ID, instead?"

I know a number of mariners who have had similar experiences. In fact, I had a TSA airport screener reject my TWIC card as an ID while flying from Seattle to Boston a couple of years ago.

In May 2011, a government report was released which exposed a number of serious shortcomings with the TWIC program. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailed how its investigators, using counterfeit TWIC cards to fool guards at the gate, gained access to a U.S. cargo terminal. They then drove a truck laden with fake explosives inside. The GAO "sting operation" showed how easily our ports — and the millions of U.S. citizens living in port areas — could be at risk from terrorists.

One of the reasons the guards at the gate were fooled during the GAO investigation was that they did not have any TWIC card reader machines capable of reading the biometric computer chip embedded in the cards. Although card readers were mandated by the SAFE Port Act of 2006, they have not been put into widespread use — which has thus far rendered the TWIC card largely useless as a form of biometric identification. TSA has been testing several models. Yet 10 years after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has still not given final approval for any TWIC card readers.

Deficiencies and problems like these have not only made many in the maritime industry critical of the TWIC card program, but a number of elected officials as well. At the Senate hearings held after the GAO report was released, it was reported that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, "Given the critical importance of our ports, it is unacceptable that we are spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a program that might actually be making ports less safe." Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who was asked to give his view at the hearings, commented that TWIC cards are no more useful than library cards. Even John Pistole, the head of the TSA, only gave the TWIC program a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, stating that the program "clearly was not what anybody intended."

In my opinion, if our government is truly interested in protecting U.S. ports and the lives of those who live near them, then the serious shortcomings identified in the GAO report must be addressed. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars which have already been spent on this "white elephant," the reality is that, as it stands now, the TWIC card program isn't working. If the problems that are hindering it cannot be overcome quickly and inexpensively, then perhaps it's time to scrap the TWIC card program and try another approach.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff