Inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a sweeping federal law to tighten security requirements for driver's licenses is in jeopardy of unraveling after missteps by Congress and the Homeland Security Department, analysts and lawmakers said.
While Washington has delayed implementing it, a rebellion against the program has grown. Privacy advocates say the effort could create a de facto national ID card. Meanwhile, state officials charge that complying with federal requirements will cost $11 billion and potentially double fees and waiting times for 245 million Americans whose licenses would have to be reissued starting next year.
The issue threatens to turn into a partisan fight. The White House expects to release its driver's license plan, Real ID, this week and has warned congressional critics not to thwart or further delay a program that was recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
"If we don't get it done now, someone's going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 commission why we didn't do it," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate's Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.
Critics in both parties will try to delay the launch of the program by offering an amendment to legislation that Senate Democrats are pushing to implement remaining changes suggested by the Sept. 11 commission.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the homeland security panel, said in a statement that Real ID may not provide real security and that it is opposed by states "because it is overly burdensome, possibly unworkable, and may actually increase a terrorist's ability to commit identity theft."
The White House plan, which has been in the works for two years and will take effect in May 2008, standardizes information that must be included on licenses, including a digital photograph, a signature and machine-readable features such as a bar code.
The new rules also will spell out how states 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. Only complying IDs can be used for federal purposes such as boarding airplanes or entering government buildings.
The law is "vital for the protection of the country," said former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean Jr., co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission. "You can't have 30 different methods of identification to get in and out of the country . . . many of them easily forged, and expect to keep the bad guys out."
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.
Tightening U.S. identification requirements was a focus of both the Sept. 11 commission and the Markle Foundation's earlier bipartisan task force on terrorism. Markle, a New York think tank, focuses on technology policy.
But concern has mounted over Real ID's cost, practicality and impact on privacy and travel.
The National Governors Association calls Real ID an $11 billion unfunded mandate. States say the federal government, not license holders, should pay the tab. It wants up to 10 years for states to enact laws, pass budgets, develop technology, hire staff members and educate the public to phase in changes.
Last month, Maine's lawmakers voted to stop the initiative, saying it would cost $185 million -- six times the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles' annual budget. Measures are pending in at least 21 states to oppose or question the law.
Matthew Dunlap, Maine's secretary of state and head of the bureau, said the message from the lawmakers was: "We don't care if you give us bags of money. We don't want it."
An unusual and powerful alliance of civil liberties groups and libertarian groups important to the political bases of both parties has also mobilized. They describe Orwellian scenarios in which Real ID integrates nationwide databases storing personal information without adequate security safeguards, and they ask who will own and control access to the system.
"Real ID is a real nightmare," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Program on Technology and Liberty. "No one should be fooled that just because the data resides in 50 different states it's not all functionally one big database, because all the data is linked together."
Steinhardt said he fears that private companies that demand to check driver's licenses for commercial purposes could sell unencrypted data they get from the licenses to big data brokers. Means to prevent that could be even more costly and raise other security risks.
There are other worries. If Maine wants to include gun-permit information on its driver's licenses, Dunlap asked, will a Maine gun owner whose ID is swiped in a traffic stop in another state face extra scrutiny?
Practical problems also loom. Computer systems that would let state workers electronically verify birth certificates, Social Security numbers or citizenship status do not yet exist, Dunlap said, calling them "science fiction."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking Republican on Lieberman's panel, and Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) are seeking to delay or repeal Real ID and let security experts, privacy advocates and the states renegotiate the rules.
That is what Congress started to do in 2004. But in 2005, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, rewrote the law to keep illegal immigrants from getting licenses and to let the Homeland Security Department define the rules for the program.
"If that process had been allowed to finish, we would have been done by now," said David Quam of the National Governors Association.
Instead, work bogged down in the overstretched department, whose top officials failed at first to give it enough attention, current and former officials said.
Stewart A. Baker, assistant homeland security secretary for policy, defended the department's effort: "We've moved this as fast as possible given the importance of the issue to so many different constituencies."
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, blamed the administration and the previous Congress for squandering the consensus on security that formed after Sept. 11.
"It's a very badly mishandled case overall of a homeland security reform that was logical, important and yet not sufficiently promoted at the right time," O'Hanlon said. "We've lost the sense of urgency."