Real ID -- a real pain

If you're planning on using up those frequent-flier miles, you might want to make the trip before the end of the year. Unless Congress or the Obama administration takes action on a shortsighted national security law approved in response to the 9/11 attacks, the nation's air travel system will get turbulent on Jan. 1, 2010.

With no debate, the Senate in 2005 approved the Real ID Act:h.r.00418: -- which had been inserted into must-pass legislation authorizing funds for the Iraq war. That may have been the only way to get the deeply controversial law through the upper house, because of all the heightened security measures passed following 9/11, none will have as dramatic and intrusive an effect on the lives of everyday Americans as Real ID.

The law mandates a tamper-proof card that would become the only acceptable form of identification for federal purposes, such as boarding a commercial airliner or entering a federal building. It was clumsily drafted in a way that imposes multibillion-dollar expenses on state governments, enhances opportunities for identity theft, turns state motor vehicle departments into arms of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and will almost certainly lead to harassment of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Though legislation has recently been introduced in Congress that would repair many of Real ID's faults, it doesn't go far enough. The best way to fix Real ID is to repeal it.

Real ID was a response to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which called for federal standards for driver's licenses and birth certificates. That's because 18 of the 19 hijackers had state IDs, some of which were fraudulent and some of which should have expired because the terrorists had overstayed their visas.

The law compels states to collect and verify various forms of identification when issuing or renewing driver's licenses, including birth certificates, Social Security numbers, proof of address and proof of immigration status. States must digitize this information, enter it into a database and make the database electronically accessible to officials in other states. They also must issue hard-to-forge licenses with machine-readable data strips. When all this is completed, the licenses can be used as federal IDs.

That sounds straightforward, but getting it done presents logistical nightmares. Consider the difficulty of verifying birth certificates. A Department of Motor Vehicles employee will have to contact the state or municipality that recorded each birth certificate to verify that it's on file, which in many cases will be impossible because the records have been lost or destroyed. Foreign documents won't be accepted, posing potentially serious obstacles for legal immigrants or citizens born outside the U.S. Meanwhile, all immigrants will be subject to immigration status checks at the DMV using a federal database that has been plagued with accuracy problems.

Performing these checks and creating secure databases promise to be expensive; a 2006 report from the National Governors Assn. estimated the cost to states at more than $11 billion. And the law raises very serious concerns about identity security. DMV data will be accessible by thousands of state officials, raising opportunities for the sale of confidential information to identity thieves or its exposure to hackers.

The states are in open revolt against Real ID because of its financial burdens, with 13 passing legislation refusing to participate in the program and at least as many more officially opposing it or considering legislation barring compliance (so far, California has been silent). This has prompted the Department of Homeland Security to repeatedly push back its deadlines. Currently, states don't have to issue the new licenses until 2017, but they must certify that they are meeting benchmarks toward compliance by Dec. 31. If any state fails to do so, and most will, its residents won't be able to use driver's licenses as ID for boarding a domestic flight, instead being forced to produce a passport or other federally acceptable photo ID.

This could cripple the nation's airports -- though it's highly unlikely that the Obama administration would allow that to happen. Unless Real ID is amended or repealed, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is likely to push back the deadline once again.

Napolitano is backing a different solution, known as the Pass ID Act:S.1261:. Introduced last month by Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), the bill was drafted at the behest of the National Governors Assn. and addresses most of the state-level concerns. DMVs would no longer have to verify birth certificates or home addresses, and they wouldn't have to create databases searchable by other states, which would greatly reduce the costs. What's more, the federal government would issue grants to cover most of the other expenses.

Pass ID is an improvement, but it still imposes risks and burdens that outweigh its national security benefits. It mandates storage of identity documents by state officials and immigration checks at the DMV. It complicates efforts by some states to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, because such licenses would require special markings to signal that the bearer is here illegally. We don't oppose sensible measures to enforce our immigration laws, but anything that discourages undocumented immigrants from getting driver's licenses -- as Pass ID would -- endangers all drivers on the road and raises insurance costs for everyone.

One question that neither the backers of Real ID nor of Pass ID have adequately answered is: If this law were in place before 9/11, would it have prevented the attacks? Given that terrorists would still be able to steal or forge identity documents, or even obtain them legally as many of the 9/11 hijackers did, the answer is almost certainly no. Tracking identity is a poor way to fend off terrorists; a better approach would be stronger measures to prevent them from smuggling weapons or explosives onto airplanes. Rather than trying to save Real ID with a less destructive bill, better to let it die of its fatal flaws.

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