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Fingerprinting of hazmat truckers begins

Requirement part of USA Patriot Act

From Mike Ahlers

• Truckers recruited in war on terror
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government on Monday began an anti-terrorism program requiring truckers who haul hazardous materials to submit to fingerprinting and criminal background checks.

But it's expected to take five years to check all 2.7 million truck drivers, and truckers fear logjams early in the program because there are few places to be fingerprinted.

California has only three fingerprinting sites and Idaho, Oregon, Washington and many other states only have one.

Critics of the program also question whether the new regulation will do much to deter terrorists, noting that nothing in the rule would prevent an attack such as the truck bombing that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995.

Congress mandated the trucker checks as part of the USA Patriot Act, amid fears that trucks could be used as weapons of mass destruction. While authorities say there are no specific threats involving trucks in the United States, truck bombs are known to be a favorite weapon of terrorists, both domestically and overseas.

In addition to the Oklahoma attack, rented vehicles filled with explosives were used in the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center.

As a stopgap measure in the years since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration has checked the names of approximately 2.7 million hazardous material truckers against lists of known or suspected terrorists. As the result of those checks, the TSA turned over more than 100 leads to the FBI, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Fingerprint-based checks are considered more comprehensive and reliable than checks of lists of names. Beginning Monday, all truckers who apply for new hazardous materials "endorsements" will be fingerprinted. On May 31, the program will extend to all drivers renewing existing endorsements.

The fingerprints will be submitted to the FBI, which will run them against its extensive criminal database. If the background check reveals that the driver has been convicted of terrorism, espionage, murder or certain other felonies, the driver will be permanently banned from hauling hazardous materials. They also will be banned if they are fugitives or adjudicated as mentally ill.

The TSA also will continue comparing names of hazardous materials truckers to terror watch lists.

Critics of the new program characterize it as a "feel-good" measure that will do little to protect the country. They argue that terrorists could steal or hijack trucks, recruit drivers with valid endorsements or put hazardous materials in rental vehicles.

Critics also ridicule a requirement that drivers "self report" incidents that would disqualify them from transporting hazardous goods.

"How honest is a terrorist going to be?" said one representative of a Virginia trucking association.

TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O'Sullivan says the measure isn't designed to make the system foolproof. Rather, she said, the TSA wants to "make it much more difficult for a terrorist to use this open transportation system to their advantage, without closing the transportation system."

Some trucking companies have supported the requirement, but many have qualms with the way it is being implemented.

"We just do not believe there is enough infrastructure in place to make it user-friendly to drivers," said Cliff Harvison, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc. "There just aren't enough places [for fingerprinting]. So it is not very user-friendly, at least not now."

Idaho, for example, has only one site -- in Boise -- meaning some truckers must travel 400 miles to be fingerprinted.

"We're hopeful that we'll be able to see some more sites designated soon," said Darla Christiansen of the Idaho Transportation Department.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have opted to use a TSA vendor to do the fingerprinting. The remaining states will do the fingerprinting themselves.

The TSA vendor -- Integrated Biometric Technology -- said its contract calls for opening more sites by May 31, when truckers will begin renewing existing endorsements.

"That gives us another three months to get all the rest up and running," said IBT President Charles Carroll.

In December, the industry's largest organization -- the American Trucking Association -- appealed the regulation, saying it imposed higher-than-necessary costs, left open a security loophole and had a disproportionately adverse impact upon small businesses.

Despite any initial hardships for truckers, Harvison said he supports the program because it will address public concern about trucks and add a needed layer of protection. Several companies have reported that suspicious people have applied for jobs as hazardous materials drivers, only to lose interest when informed of the background checks, he said.

"I think in the long run it's the right thing to do," he said.

Originally, the regulation was to take effect in 2003. But it was postponed at least twice after states complained they did not have enough time to set up fingerprinting systems.

All 50 states are going to meet the Monday deadline, said Jason King of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

There are currently no plans to require fingerprints and background checks of drivers who haul nonhazardous materials, but the TSA is looking at a plan to issue credentials to all transportation workers.

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