Senators question port security after Navy base shooting

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Senators questioned the security of identification cards imposed by lawmakers for port workers after a Navy base shooting suspect was approved for an ID.

The Transportation Security Administration has faced criticism for its oversight of the transportation identification program since the March shooting at a naval station in Norfolk, Va.

Officials said Jeffrey Tyrone Savage, an ex-convict accused of killing a sailor at the naval station, was permitted on the Navy base because he was a civilian contractor with a transportation ID card.

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GOP members on the Senate Homeland Security Committee asked Wednesday how secure the identification cards could be if the Norfolk shooter could slip through the TSA's background check system.

"I'd just like your assessment on somebody with TWIC card that gets into a port and shoots people," Sen. Tom CoburnTom CoburnGOP faces existential threat Sanders tops 2016 field in newly deleted tweets The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Okla.) asked a TSA official. "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 told Coburn that the Norfolk shooting suspect was cleared based on standards that were in place when he applied for his identification in December 2013. 

Savage had at least two prior felony convictions, including one for voluntary manslaughter, USA TODAY reported.

"At the time that individual was vetted Senator, the standard for manslaughter included all manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary," Sadler said. 

"So when the individual came through, the crime had been committed in 2005, the conviction occurred in 2008," Sadler continued. "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. Based on the standards that we were using at the time, that voluntary manslaughter charge was not a disqualifier."

The TSA has been assailed in the past for delays in issuing the identification cards. The agency has moved to a "one-visit" system of mailing the identifications to port workers after they apply in person to speed up the implementation of the system. 

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteGOP women push Trump on VP pick John Bolton PAC pours more cash into GOP campaigns Dem campaign arm: Poll numbers slipping for vulnerable Republicans MORE (R-N.H.) questioned whether the mail-in program was making the transportation identification cards less secure.

"You testified about the one-visit pilot, and now it's going to a nationwide mailing system," she said to Sadler. "So how do you assess it's going And are you able to do this without concerns about fraud."

Sadler noted that the TSA was directed by Congress to move to the system of mailing the ID cards. Congress mandated that all port workers who had access to secured areas should have encrypted identification cards in 2002. 

"Congress pretty much directed to go in that direction," he said.

Sadler noted that the mailing system was a "tradeoff between security and convenience."

"Definitely, it's more convenient there," 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."

Sadler added that the TSA takes steps to secure the transportation identification cards that are similar to the methods banks use to protect ATM pins.

"We send the card out separately, and then we send the PIN in a different letter," he said. "So we try and send them out in two different letters."
 
Sadler noted about the Norfolk shooting that individuals who possess transportation identification cards were not automatically allowed on Naval bases.

"As far as him using the card at the base, I would defer to [Department of Defense]," Sadler said. "But the one point I have to make is that the TWIC in and of itself does not give you access to a port. You have to have a TWIC, and you have to have a business need."

Sadler added that the TSA has revised its criteria for approving the transportation identification cards since the shooting, however.

"We're scrubbing all the cases we had for disqualifications that involve involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter," he said. "And we've changed our policy now that if you come in with a voluntary manslaughter charge, that's going to be an interim disqualifier; 'interim' meaning that you are still eligible to appeal, you're still eligible to request a waiver, you're still eligible to request an administrative law judge review, and you're eligible to go to court if you don't agree with the finding that we make."

Lawmakers in both parties said Wednesday that it was vitally important to keep ports secure.

"Our ports and waterways are the life blood of our economy," Sen. Tom CarperTom CarperSenators urge White House to speed cyber policy updates Retailers battle financial sector over data breach legislation Senate approves new Veterans Affairs watchdog MORE (D-Del.) said. "I'm told that more than 95 percent of all U.S. trade is handled via sea ports, 95 percent. And these ports account for over 30 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, that's more than $5 trillion in trade each and every year."

Carper said it was important to think about the impact of ports beyond their geographic locations.

"The Port of Wilmington isn't just important for the state of Delaware, where it serves as a key economic engine in New Castle county, it's also a key port for the entire United States," he said. "So protecting our ports, safeguarding our economic opportunity is a responsibility that we take very seriously."