Saturday, August 21, 2004

The September 11 commission’s recommendation for federal standards of identification documents such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates is tantamount to the introduction of a national ID card system “through the back door,” some lawmakers believe.

The commission stopped short of actually recommending the introduction of national ID cards but did say that the fight against terrorism required greater consistency and security of state-issued identification documents.

“There needs to be consistent standards to ensure the integrity of both the document and the issuance process,” said commission member Jamie S. Gorelick, a former Clinton administration Justice Department official.

The commission also recommended a radical transformation of the way government data are stored, to facilitate the free flow of information among federal agencies and between them and state and local governments.

Commissioners testified Friday before the House subcommittee on the Constitution and will go before the entire House Judiciary Committee tomorrow.

“If you have federal standards [for driver’s licenses] and a free-flow information system between states and the federal government [about the holders of licenses] … what’s the difference between [that] and a national ID?” asked Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, Utah Republican

Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, said the difference is that driver’s licenses are already widely accepted and used as a de facto ID card but are issued according to different state standards and are too easy to obtain without proper identification.

“We’re simply saying take something that everyone accepts now and have it standardized in a way that it really identifies the people who are holding onto it,” he told Mr. Cannon.

“What I hear you saying, Senator Gorton, is that you want a national ID,” Mr. Cannon replied, but “you want to get through the back door by using something that everybody already accepts.”

Mr. Gorton responded that there is an important difference between a compulsory ID document and one like a driver’s license that “you voluntarily go out and get.”

Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, pointed out that there is nothing voluntary about a birth certificate. Mr. Gorton replied that both documents are accepted as proof of identity, even though neither is secure.

“You’ve already got a national ID in one or the other;” he told the congressman. “You just don’t know whether it’s any good.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, raised the issue of the so-called “legal presence requirement,” now part of the law in 11 states, which requires applicants to prove they are U.S. citizens or have a right to reside in the country before they can be issued a driver’s license. Without such a requirement, he said, state licenses were not secure, which, he said, “affects all of us.”

But the legal presence requirement has proved controversial.

“Our initials are D-M-V, not I-N-S,” said American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators spokesman Jason King, referring to the acronym of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into the Homeland Security Department last year. “We are the experts in driver licensing, not immigration.”

Moreover, immigrants’ rights advocates argue that by excluding illegal migrants or temporary workers from the vehicle and driver licensing system, legal presence makes the roads less safe even as they make the identity system more secure.

Jerry Humble, homeland security adviser to Gov. Phil Bredesen, Tennessee Democrat, said his state has found a way to square that circle.

Since July 1, the state has issued so-called driver certificates to anyone unable to prove legal presence, provided they can show they live in the state and can pass the driving test. The documents resemble driver’s licenses but are stamped “Not for identification” at the top.

“You can’t use it to get on a plane or buy a gun,” Mr. Humble said. “It says we know you can drive, but we can’t guarantee we know exactly who you are.”

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