The FBI takes a complacent and potentially dangerous view of terror threats to the U.S. maritime system, and has allowed known or suspected terrorists to be issued a special federal ID card allowing them unescorted access to secure areas of port facilities, according to a recent audit by the Office of Inspector General.
Auditors found “significant deficiencies” in the way the bureau worked with other maritime security stakeholders, including its role in the issuance of Transportation Worker Identification Credential or TWIC cards. TWIC cards are biometric identity documents issued to port workers who have been subject to a background check by the TSA — and they allow holders into secure and potentially sensitive areas of U.S. ports.
Many of the report’s details are redacted, but between October 2006 and January 2017, auditors found there were 214 hits on the Terrorist Screening Center database of people who either held or had applied for a TWIC. The center maintains the vast U.S. watchlist of known and suspected terrorists, many of whom may have only a tenuous or even coincidental relationship to terror groups or their members.
But several of the individuals (the exact number is redacted) with an active TWIC card were on the No Fly list — a subset of the watchlist where more stringent standards of evidence are employed.
“To be assigned a No Fly status, the FBI must document sufficient derogatory information and predication of a threat to commercial aviation,” the auditors write. “An individual with a No Fly status generally cannot fly on commercial aircraft for security reasons, yet those that hold a TWIC are afforded unescorted access to secure maritime facilities.”
“We believe that FBI personnel may have made recommendations to the TSA regarding these [TWIC card issuance] decisions without an adequate understanding of the access that would be granted and the potential risks involved,” said Inspector General Michael Horowitz, in a video release.
The audit also found that, while the FBI believes the terror threat to the U.S. maritime system is low, this belief is based on incomplete and maybe even inaccurate information, because many incidents related to the maritime transportation system weren’t properly coded as maritime related in the FBI’s Guardian database.
“Our report found significant deficiencies in the way the FBI assesses the maritime terrorism threat,” Horowitz said, noting that the bureau does not conduct its own formal maritime threat assessments.
The FBI’s belief that maritime terrorism was a low level threat was based on the small number of maritime incidents and the absence of a domestic maritime-related terrorism attack — combined with the bureau’s belief that the primary responsibility for protecting the nation’s ports and making informed assessments on maritime terrorism threats rested with the U.S. Coast Guard rather than the FBI.
“Obtaining a thorough understanding of the security features and methods used to secure each port could increase the FBI’s awareness of the potential security weaknesses related to unauthorized access,” conclude the auditors.
Their report makes nine recommendations to the FBI to strengthen its maritime counterterrorism activities. The FBI agreed with all of them.