The Transportation Security Administration, taking a break from its critical shoe-removal and water-bottle-disposal duties, has told the mule-skinners at Hugh Moore Park that they must comply with strict post-9/11 security measures by applying for high-tech biometric Transportation Worker Identification Credentials. Why they might need these was not immediately clear, since "mule-skinners" are actors in colonial garb who use mules to pull a canal barge.
"We have one boat," said Sarah B. Hays, operations director for the National Canal Museum, and presumably al Qaeda's current third-in-command. "It's pulled by two mules. On a good day they might go two miles per hour." Other park officials said that they would consider the mules "weapons of mass destruction" only if they were aimed at food.
Hays asked Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.) to see if he could help get a waiver. Dent wrote to the TSA, making clear that the transportation in question was "mule-drawn canal boats." The TSA responded immediately, saying that the requirement would be waived.
Just kidding. The TSA wrote back in January, noting that the TWIC requirement applies to all mariners holding credentials issued by the Coast Guard. And since the mule-skinners hold such credentials, the TSA explained -- though it did not explain why mule-skinners need those to begin with, barge or no barge -- they must also comply with the TWIC requirement. "We encourage the crew members . . . who possess Coast Guard mariner credentials to obtain a TWIC at their earliest convenience to comply with these requirements and not risk suspension or revocation of their other credentials," the TSA wrote.
In February, Rep. Dent got a chance to ask the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, about the controversy. He took the opportunity to show the (presumably declassified) picture of the security threat shown above. "Now, Hank and George," he said, referring to the mules, "while sometimes [they] are ornery, they are not terrorists." Napolitano got a bit defensive. "Obviously, this is a picture designed to say, 'Hey, isn't it absurd that they be required to have TWIC cards,'" she said, apparently suggesting the picture had been doctored in some way to make the mule-skinners seem less threatening. After some further discussion, Napolitano expressed a willingness to compromise. "[L]et's work with you on this particular case, if we might," she said, and they did.
Just kidding. In March, the museum was notified that it would not be granted an exemption after all. Dent and Hays both said they were disappointed by the ruling. Hays said the additional expense might force the museum to raise the ticket price for canal rides, now $7 but likely well worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a two-mile-per-hour barge ride. On the other hand, I suppose the thrill factor goes up substantially if you think your mule-skinners might suddenly try to crash your barge into a nuclear plant.
Hays said the added expense of the biometric ID cards was pointless, since the barges do not enter high-security areas at any point along the ride. Or so she claimed.