- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

The September 11 commission report was supposed to be a call to action. Didn’t we all agree on that just a couple of months ago? Weren’t we supposed to put politics aside and pass its recommendations for the greater national good? Editorial boards said so. Members of Congress swore so. Even skeptics said they thought the House and Senate would come together on this one.

Well, welcome to Washington, 2004. Now, words like “stalemate,” “standoff” and “impasse” are used to describe the status of the intelligence-reform package. And if you listen to some senators and congressmen — and many members of the news media — the fault lies with a single “ultra-conservative” congressman from Wisconsin who is holding up the entire bill for some personal political agenda. That may be good spin, but it’s wrong. What’s holding up the bill is politics as usual in Washington.

At issue is a key September 11 commission recommendation, a political hot potato that many in our nation’s capital are afraid to touch. It involves driver’s licenses: How they are issued in America, who should be able to get them and who must not.

This subject has gone largely unnoticed in our national debate, and many members of Congress hope it stays that way. Only Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, who as House Judiciary Committee chairman wields enormous power over the omnibus legislation, has shown the political courage to fight for this crucial reform. For that he is being vilified. But he refuses to budge.

And thank God. Driver’s licenses are a proven threat to our nation’s homeland security and they must be regulated at the federal level. One of the first things the Sept. 11 terrorists did when they arrived in the United States was to get driver’s licenses. They went to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. The 19 terrorists traveled all around the country, to states that granted licenses to virtually anyone, and acquired 63 of them, begging the question “Why?” Why did al Qaeda go to the trouble of getting 63 driver’s licenses when planning its attacks? The answer is simple: Because it needed them. It had to have licenses to operate here unnoticed. It knew that the driver’s license is America’s de facto national identification card, our internal passport that opens doors to everything, everywhere in this country.

Most Americans know that the terrorists used those licenses to board the airplanes that day. But many don’t realize how many other things a license can do. It gets one into sensitive government and commercial buildings. It allows holders to rent vans and trucks. It can be used to open bank accounts and facilitate overseas wire transfers, keys to any terrorist operation. It also was the identification used by the terrorists to enroll in flight school.

Make no mistake about it. That wallet-sized document is one of the most powerful tools available to terrorists behind our lines.

Al Qaedaknew it. The September 11 commission learned it. And now many in Congress want to ignore it.

The reason is that the House bill, which is based on a specific September 11 commission recommendation, would prevent any illegal alien in the United States from obtaining a driver’s license. It would create a single national standard for the types of identification states would need to see before issuing licenses, including proof of legal status in this country.

Lots of powerful interests don’t want that to happen because undocumented aliens are a huge source of cheap labor in this country. That labor has to get to work somehow, specifically in cars. But at the expense of homeland security? To Mr. Sensenbrenner and those who share his views the risks far outweigh the questionable benefits.

Some in Washington are trying to pass the buck, saying this issue should be handled at the state level. But that doesn’t make sense. This is a clear national-security issue: An Illinois or New Mexico driver’s license in the hands of a terrorist is as dangerous to New Yorkers or Washingtonians as it is to people inChicagoorAlbuquerque. We must have reform at the national level because America is only as secure as its weakest-link state.

Others are suggesting that the bill be passed without the license-reform provision. That issue, they say, can be explored at a future date. But Mr. Sensenbrenner, a Washington veteran, knows that will never happen. He knows we have only one crack at getting this bill right, and in that he is exhibiting uncommon common sense.

Amanda Bowman, the mother of six drivers, is President of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License.

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