- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008


To listen to the paranoid debate now taking place over the REAL ID Act in Congress, some state legislatures and the blogosphere, one might think that this legislation was some Bush administration plot to create a national identity card and spy on innocent Americans. The reality is much more serious and mundane. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there is a need to set some kind of minimum standards to ensure that driver’s licenses and other forms of government-issued identification cannot be tampered with and used by terrorists.

Timothy McVeigh used a fraudulent South Dakota driver’s license to rent the Ryder truck in Oklahoma that was used to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 persons. The Sept. 11 hijackers fraudulently acquired 17 driver’s licenses from Florida, California and Arizona, including four duplicates. They also obtained 13 state-issued IDs from Maryland, Virginia and Florida. The IDs were used to open bank accounts, find housing, rent cars and board aircraft on Sept. 11. Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., and Hani Hanjour, who crashed his plane into the Pentagon, had both obtained Virginia IDs by fraud. Three Salvadoran immigrants living in Virginia (one a legal permanent resident of the United States and the other two illegal aliens) helped four of the Sept. 11 hijackers use fraudulent identification in order to obtain Virginia-issued identification cards.

The Sept. 11 commission recommended that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of birth certifications and sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” In its December 2005 final report, commission members praised Congress for enacting the Real ID Act because it sets minimum standards for boarding an airplane or entering a federal building. The goal of the law is simple: to make it much less likely that in the future, a McVeigh, Jarrah or Hanjour would be able to use a fraudulently obtained identification to commit mass murder. The goal is a self-evidently reasonable one, although we understand why some critics view the Real ID Act as trampling upon civil liberties in an effort to meet that goal.

It’s important, however, to understand what the REAL ID legislation does and does not require. For one thing, states retain control over the production and issuance of driver’s licenses, and over applicant data and the adjudication of applications.

For another, the Real ID Act does not create a “national database.” The law “does just the opposite, keeping data flows narrowly defined,” according to Janice Kephart, an attorney who investigated the hijackers travel on behalf of the September 11 commission. “Real ID enables verification of identity information such as [Social Security numbers], birth records, driving records, and immigration status between states and the federal government. The data is limited to defined fields of information with limited personnel access over a network owned and operated by the states,” Miss Kephart noted in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

But that is apparently not good enough for Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No 2. Democrat in that chamber, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, the third-ranking GOP member of the Senate. Both lawmakers say they may try to attach an amendment to Homeland Security appropriations legislation that could effectively kill Real ID. The senators say the amendment would simply ensure that the federal government reimburses the state for the costs of carrying out the law. But for the past three years, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Durbin have been tirelessly denouncing the very concept of Real ID, wrongly depicting it as a step toward a national identity card and a scheme to deprive Americans of their civil liberties. In truth, Real ID is a critical means of defense against a future attack. Although additional federal assistance in implementing Real ID is probably warranted, the Senate should kill any back-door effort to sabotage Real ID.

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