National ID card system failing to attract supporters

Calls for a national system of identification cards sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have gained little traction, failing to win endorsements from the Bush administration or congressional leaders.

Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Larry Ellison attracted national attention by calling for such a system in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks and offering to donate the database software that would be needed.

After a series of interviews touting the plan, Ellison continued to push his idea in meetings with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and others, including the database giant's first customer, the CIA. Ellison said last week that future White House meetings were planned.

But Bush spokesman Jimmy Orr said the administration wasn't considering a mandatory ID program, and Feinstein is backing away from reports of her support.

The Justice Department said Tuesday it has no position on even a voluntary card and isn't planning anything of the sort.

"That high-level administration officials are somehow directing this, I think is a far cry," a department official said on condition of anonymity.

Feinstein said Tuesday that she is preparing legislation that would call for mandatory IDs with fingerprints and other biometric data only for noncitizens entering the U.S., along with a new database that would allow immigration authorities to check information from the CIA as well as state criminal files and other records.

"It's just for people coming into the country," Feinstein said. "I think this is where we should start."

Some other improvements in the nation's patchwork identity system are probable, such as the expanded use of "smart cards" for military and law enforcement personnel. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto said the agency is considering adopting smart cards with extra digital information for special airline passengers, such as police officers.

This week, the U.S. organization for driver's license officials is meeting in hopes of hammering out recommendations to standardize the 50 state systems and toughen requirements.

"Your driver's license has become your de facto ID card, like it or not," said Jason King, spokesman for the nonprofit American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

King said that group's top priority is a system that will allow states to connect. Building such a system will take new federal and state laws and tens of millions of dollars, he said.

"If you have a nationwide unified framework, you will be able to, for the first time, uniquely identify that the person is who they say they are," King said. "We're trying to come up with a strong uniform voice to go to Congress."

Several in the Capitol, including Senate terrorism subcommittee chair Feinstein, have made comments favoring a stricter national ID policy since the attacks. They have been buoyed by polls showing a majority of the U.S. would support such a plan.

Ellison was one of the earliest advocates of a new identification system. "We've been so busy protecting ourselves against our government that we have made it impossible for our government to protect us," Ellison told Oracle employees in a speech posted to the company's Web site.

Other technology firms, from small credit card hologram makers to Silicon Valley stalwart Sun Microsystems Inc., have been promoting potential security services to federal authorities and the press.

But the idea of a national ID has run into many of the same criticisms as in previous decades, when it was seen as an answer to illegal immigration and other problems. Both civil liberties groups and many conservatives oppose it.

"A national ID card is one of those third-rail issues of national politics," said David Banisar, a Harvard researcher and deputy director of ID card foe Privacy International. "It tends to die pretty quick."

Opponents cite fears of racial profiling as police begin demanding cards of anyone who appears suspicious.

And they say the history of large government databases and identity cards is filled with cases of mistaken identity and improper use.

A case in point is the FBI-run National Crime Information Center, which compiles information on suspects and arrest records from all 50 states.

Some 500,000 officials have access to the database, and a 1993 General Accounting Office study found that the FBI didn't keep track of misuse. The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, nonetheless turned up systemic problems, including the lack of personal passwords for people using the computer terminals.

Among the hundreds of cases of misuse, the agency found that operators were selling information to private detectives, helping criminals, and in one case, assisting a former law enforcement officer who used the data to track down and kill his girlfriend. Just this year, an FBI manager in Las Vegas and nine others were charged in a scheme to sell FBI files to criminal suspects.