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US to conduct background checks on 400,000 port workers

WASHINGTON -- Answering criticism about security gaps at US seaports, the Bush administration said yesterday that it will conduct background checks on an estimated 400,000 port workers to ensure they do not pose a terrorist threat.

Names of employees who work in the most sensitive areas of ports will be matched against government terror watch lists and immigration databases, said Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security. The department will also issue tamper-resistant identification cards to about 750,000 workers, including truckers and rail employees, who have unrestricted access to ports.

The announcement drew tepid praise from Representative Bennie G. Thompson, of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

''I find the timing of this announcement very convenient seeing as Congress is considering a port security bill tomorrow," said Thompson, who also said Homeland Security should have issued the ID cards three years ago. ''It appears that DHS steps up to the plate to protect our national security only when the cameras are rolling and the whole world is watching."

The added scrutiny will not immediately include a criminal background check for workers, although Chertoff said that might happen in the future. The Transportation Security Administration, not the FBI, will conduct the background checks, he said.

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