Homeland Security Retreats From Facets of 'Real ID'

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Bush administration is easing its demand for tough national standards for driver's licenses, acting at the behest of state officials who say the "Real ID" plan is unworkable and too costly, officials familiar with the new policy said.

While Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hailed an agreement with New York last week on more secure state identification cards for citizens as a sign that "the tide is moving more rapidly in favor of Real ID," his department is preparing to extend deadlines for the second time in a year and ease or take over responsibility for new security measures, the officials said.

Chertoff had earlier announced that DHS would waive the original May 2008 deadline and set a new target of 2013 for getting all 245 million U.S. driver's licenses to comply with a national standard. Now, DHS may extend the original deadline by a decade, to 2018 for drivers older than 40 or 50 to reduce the costs associated with a projected surge of customers at state motor vehicle departments, the officials said.

In a recent meeting, DHS policy official Richard C. Barth told state officials to expect Real ID's price tag to fall by "billions of dollars" as DHS eases previous demands that the new licenses be renewed every five years, that expensive, tamper-resistant materials be used to create the ID cards, and that each state develop its own document verification systems, those officials said.

In an interview Friday, Barth's boss, DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart A. Baker, said the department is finalizing long-awaited regulations for a 90-day White House budget review, and has "listened hard to the states' concerns about possible costs and disruptions to their licensing procedures, and we are going to make changes in response to those concerns . . . and still provide the security the country expects."

Extending Real ID deadlines to align with how state agencies register and renew license holders can shorten lines, reduce hiring and slash costs, Baker said. The changes also will make the process easier for older drivers, who are viewed as less of a security risk but are sometimes unable to provide reliable source documents such as birth certificates.

Analysts inside and outside of government say the changes reflect the difficulties facing DHS, which has less experience in managing identification programs than the states do. The analysts said that the changes also reflect the high cost of Real ID and worries that the program already is opposed from the left and the right as a potential threat to individual privacy.

Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said DHS is weakening the program in a desperate bid to keep it alive. The ACLU and conservative libertarian groups that oppose Real ID view it as a de facto national ID with Orwellian implications. Eight states have passed legislation to opt out of the program, nine others have passed resolutions in opposition, and more will consider doing so this winter.

"DHS is doing back flips in order to get states to say they are complying with Real ID," Sparapani said. "It was flawed in principle from the beginning, and DHS is attempting a 'Hail Mary' pass to try to coerce and convince states that what they are doing under existing statutes is acceptable."

Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit advocacy group, said DHS "is doing its very best to manage the trade-offs between security, travel facilitation, cost for states and practical consideration in implementation."

In 2005, Congress passed legislation mandating Real ID to standardize information that must be included on licenses, including a digital photograph, a signature and machine-readable features such as a bar code. Under the law, states also must verify applicants' citizenship status, check identity documents such as birth certificates, and cross-check information with other states and with Social Security, immigration and State Department databases. The new licenses must include features to thwart forgery and fraud, and drivers born after 1935 will have to present birth certificates or passports to obtain them.

Supporters noted that all but one of the Sept. 11 hijackers acquired, legitimately or by fraud, IDs that allowed them to board planes, rent cars and move through the country.

Congress approved $40 million in grants to states to cover some of the expenses this year. By comparison, the National Governors Association wants $1 billion next year as a down payment for states' start-up costs.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company