13News Now Investigation: Security access at Naval Station Norfolk

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by Nick Ochsner, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on March 25, 2014 at 6:31 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 25 at 6:41 PM

NORFOLK -- The type of security credential used by the man who shot and killed a sailor aboard the USS Mahan on Monday night has come under fire by members of Congress and government officials in recent years.

A civilian was able to get aboard the USS Mahan, disarm a sentry and shoot another sailor before being shot and killed by security forces.

At a press briefing Monday, Captain Robert Clark, Naval Station Norfolk's commanding officer, said the gunman was authorized to be on base at the time of the shooting.

Clark said the gunman used a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card, to get on base.

TWIC cards are commonly issued by truck drivers, employees of the Navy Military Sealift Command, merchant mariners and other employees who work at a commercial port.

The TWIC program was created in the wake of 9/11 as a way to tighten security at commercial ports and other sensitive civilian areas that could be a high-value target for terrorists.

Retired Navy Captain Joe Bouchard said told 13News Now the gunman in Monday's shooting would have had to clear several checkpoints using his TWIC card before he was able to board the USS Mahan.

"To get on the pier is tight security," Bouchard said. "To get onto the ships, there's tight security. So an incident like this happening is really a shock."

Bouchard said TWIC cards are a lesser-used but valid form of identification used to access Naval Station Norfolk.

"There's a very thorough background check on individuals before they can get one," Bouchard said of the TWIC card program. "It's every bit as secure as a military ID."

But much of the card's security comes in the high-tech biometric data stored in the card. The card must be scanned before that information is accessed; something that currently does not happen.

The US Coast Guard is working to develop a set of rules and guidelines regulating TWIC card scanners, but until that is done, the process to scan TWIC cards--and access their vast oceans of personal data--cannot move forward.

A number of memos and advisories issued by the Department of the Navy show that TWIC holders can get unaccompanied access to a base if they present their TWIC card for inspection along with a valid bill of lading or other form of verifiable documentation.

The TWIC cards do not fall under the Navy's Commercial Access Control System, also known as RapidGate, which is a voluntary program used to verify the identities of civilian contractors.

All cards issued as part of the RapidGate program, along with other forms of DOD-issued ID cards, are scanned by sentries that man the check points onto Naval Station Norfolk.

Members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office have questioned the effectiveness of the TWIC program.

During a hearing on the future of the TWIC program last June, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security questioned the cards reliability. 

"Unfortunately, the biometric capabilities on the card are of little use because delays in the pilot program and rulemaking processes have taken longer than ever intended," said Representative Candice S. Miller (R-MI).

That same day, the GAO released a report essentially saying the TWIC cards are unreliable and the program's security benefits should be reassessed.

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