ID Plan Is Broadly Criticized

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks about Real ID at a National Press Club news conference.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks about Real ID at a National Press Club news conference. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)

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By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

A new Bush administration plan to create national standards for driver's licenses drew heavy criticism yesterday from civil liberties groups, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers, governors, and the travel industry.

The critics said the new licenses anticipated under the plan, which is aimed at screening out potential terrorists and uncovering illegal immigrants, could still be forged. They also complained that the program, known as Real ID, would be costly for states to implement, potentially restrict summer travel, and allow private companies access to the personal data of most U.S. citizens.

But they also welcomed yesterday's official announcement that states have until May 2011 before they need to begin issuing licenses that meet the department's new guidelines, and until December 2014 to begin replacing current licenses. Drivers over the age of 50 will not have to obtain new licenses until the end of 2017.

The deadline extensions give both Congress and future presidents time to reconsider what opponents have depicted as a national identification system that will infringe on privacy rights and leave room for large-scale identity theft.

"DHS has kicked the can down the road to the next administration, and conceivably the next two or three administrations," said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. Already, 17 states have said they would either refuse to issue the new licenses or have asked Congress to repeal a 2005 law that required states to collect and store additional data on driver's license applicants, such as birth certificates, Social Security numbers and home addresses.

Under Real ID, all new licenses would be machine-readable and contain personal information that could be scanned by governments and potentially by corporations.

At a news conference yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the guidelines represent a balance between security and privacy in accordance with the Real ID Act. He warned that residents in states such as Georgia and Washington, which have refused to comply with the program, may be subject to additional security checks or prevented from boarding flights once the program begins this spring.

He urged those states to seek waivers to allow their residents to continue flying as of May 11, when the regulations begin to take effect.

The ACLU called Chertoff's warning an empty threat designed to pressure states to join the program.

"The airline industry is not going to allow the federal government to prevent citizens of noncompliant states from getting on airplanes," said Timothy Sparapani, the group's senior legislative counsel, who added that "1.8 million people fly everyday and a sizable number leave from airports like Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, which is one of the busiest in the country."

The Travel Industry Association of America welcomed "flexibility" from DHS on the program's implementation schedule but said "no American should be denied the right to travel because of disagreements between federal and state lawmakers."

State and local officials also expressed concerns. In a joint statement, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators said they need time "to determine whether the act can be implemented in a cost-effective and feasible manner."

DHS estimated that the program will cost states $3.9 billion to implement, a significant decrease from earlier estimates as high as $14 billion. But many state officials have said the financial burden is still too great.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), whose state is among those resisting the program, said it is "unrealistic to expect our state to conform" when "the federal government has only provided a mere 3 percent of the funds needed for implementation."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who originally sponsored the Real ID Act, said he, too, is disappointed, saying the program was conceived as a way to prevent potential terrorists from obtaining driver's licenses, as some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers did.

"While this phased-in enrollment of the law may save states some operational funds, it is important to realize that by pushing back the original 3-year deadline till 2017, a full 12 years after the law was enacted, DHS is weakening the intent of the law," Sensenbrenner said in a statement. "A lot can happen in the next 9 years, and I hope our nation does not encounter a situation in that time that will cause us to regret this delay."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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