Wednesday, April 26, 2006

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire suddenly has become a battleground in the fight over privacy rights versus homeland security, with state legislators voting against strict new federal standards for issuing driver’s licenses.

At issue is the federal Real ID Act, which is intended to keep terrorists from obtaining fake IDs. It requires states by 2008 to verify documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards and passports when people apply for driver’s licenses. State databases with driver information and photos also will be linked.

Last month, the Republican-controlled New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly to bar the state from participating in the program. A vote in the Republican-dominated Senate is expected in two weeks after a committee endorsement yesterday. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, remains undecided.

The legislation has won backing from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as conservative privacy advocates and Christian fundamentalists.

“I think New Hampshire will set the dominoes falling in the states,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program of the ACLU, who testified against Real ID at a recent state Senate hearing alongside a member of the conservative Cato Institute.

Legislation in other states would condemn Real ID, but New Hampshire’s bill is the toughest measure making real progress anywhere, Mr. Steinhardt said.

Republican state Rep. Neal Kurk, author of the bill against Real ID, gave a stirring speech during the debate.

“We care more for our liberties than to meekly hand over to the federal government the potential to enumerate, track, identify and eventually control,” Mr. Kurk told the House.

A weekend rally featuring Real ID opponents in Nazi uniforms attracted lawmakers from both parties, and worried members of Congress dispatched a staff member from the House Judiciary Committee to meet one-on-one with state senators in advance of the committee vote yesterday.

Supporters of Real ID say blocking it will isolate New Hampshire, requiring residents to obtain a passport if they want to board an airplane or enter a federal building. The state also would lose a $3 million federal grant to update driver’s license computers.

Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said Real ID closes loopholes that allowed a September 11 terrorist with a six-month tourist visa to obtain driver’s licenses in multiple states good for five years or longer.

He said it sprang from a finding of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.”

Many governors and some state motor vehicle directors oppose Real ID. Most state legislatures are waiting to see regulations for implementing the law from the federal Department of Homeland Security before acting.

“It’s not going to promote national security. It’s not going to help us prevent illegal immigration. It’s just going to help the government keep tabs on ordinary citizens,” Mr. Kurk said. “Remember, the 9/11 terrorists were in this country legally and had legally obtained documents.”

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