Two years ago, 19 men, seven of them carrying driver’s licenses and other fraudulent identity documents from Virginia, hijacked airplanes and killed 3,000 Americans in less than three hours. While many states have subsequently taken steps to make their driver’s licenses more difficult to tamper with, the largest state in the union has gone backwards. Just nine days ago, for example, California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law legislation permitting illegal immigrants to obtain licenses.
The security dangers posed by identity fraud involving driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, forged immigration documents and birth certificates were on vivid display Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee. The highlight of the committee hearing was testimony from a counterfeiter named Youssef Hmimssa, who was arrested Sept. 28, 2001, in Iowa and later pleaded guilty to fraud. Testifying under extremely tight security, he described matter-of-factly his experiences in the identity-fraud business. When living in New York, he obtained a French passport on the black market, which he used to obtain a Social Security card under an alias. After moving to Chicago, he got another Social Security card, which he took, along with an immigration form, to the Illinois secretary of state’s office, where he obtained an ID. Then, Hmimssa obtained a driver’s license there. Overseas, he said, it is “easy” to obtain passports under false pretenses. “In the U.S., it’s the same thing. You can get birth certificates, Social Security cards,” Hmimssa added.
And, two years after September 11, much of the problem has yet to be fixed. Robert Cramer of the General Accounting Office testified that GAO investigators successfully used counterfeit driver’s licenses to obtain genuine licenses in the District and seven states — among them Virginia, Maryland and California — between July 2002 and May. One of the most problem-riddled states was California, where three investigators, using the same fraudulent information, were able to obtain temporary licenses within two days. On one occasion, after one agent failed a vision test, a second agent took the test for him and handed him the successful results. Then, the first agent went back and picked up his license. Worse still, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for border and transportation policy, Asa Hutchinson, warned that California’s new law will worsen things by permitting illegals to obtain licenses. It will create an extra burden for border agents charged with keeping them out of the country, Mr. Hutchinson testified.
The testimony and the breaches strongly suggest it is possible for the next Mohammed Atta to board a U.S. airliner using a fake ID. The Finance Committee spotlights the fact that the battle against identity fraud is one of the top domestic security challenges the United States faces today.