Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Supports Weakening Post-9/11 Driver's License Reforms That Were Designed to Thwart Terrorists

By Fred Lucas | July 16, 2009 | 5:53 PM EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Opposition is growing to legislation that would weaken some of the restrictions to the Real ID act, a law that resulted from a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to prevent identification fraud.

The PASS ID bill, which is supported by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, eliminates security measures included in the Real ID Act, which required verification of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status before someone could get a driver's license that could be used as an identification card for federal purposes such as boarding an airplane.  The purposed of the REAL ID act was to prevent ID fraud and fulfill recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission. 

The Pass ID bill would not require that the birth certificate is confirmed, would leave addresses off some driver’s licenses in cases where it is for their own protection and would not require that people have a valid driver’s license or ID to board an airplane.

The Real ID act requires state Department of Motor Vehicles (or the driver license issuing agency) to cross check the name and information of other states, which would not be required under Pass ID.

All but one of the 19 hijackers on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on America had multiple driver licenses. To go from Real ID to Pass ID would be to undermine the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who sponsored the Real ID act in 2005.

“This undercuts the Real ID goal, which was the goal of a combination of people from immigrant groups, the ACLU and governors that don’t want to pay for it,” Sensenbrenner told CNSNews.com. “Real ID is essential and necessary. Most of the 9/11 terrorists had multiple driver’s licenses.”

The 9/11 Commission report released in 2004 said “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.”

Still, the American Civil Liberties Union has alleged that the new requirements on driver’s licenses amount to a national ID card for citizens. Sensenbrenner disputes that, adding that states have had a cross-checking system for commercial driver’s license since the early 1990s.

“This is to use the driver’s license as an ID so there will be no need for a national ID card. If the driver’s licenses don’t mean anything, there will be more pressure for national ID cards,” Sensenbrenner continued. “This has been the system for commercial driver’s license for almost 20 years.”

Sensenbrenner said that Real ID is also a highway safety issue as well. Without it, someone with a suspended license could more easily cross a state line, list a friend's address and obtain a driver’s license without the points on their record.

The National Governor’s Association also opposes Real ID because many governors consider it an unfunded federal mandate. Though passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, Real ID was never implemented nationwide, and 24 states have resisted implementation of the law, of which 13 states passed laws to not participate in Real ID.

Napolitano said the Pass ID bill brings the U.S. closer to compliance with federal standards for secure driver’s licenses.

“Pass ID is a cost-effective, common-sense solution that balances critical security requirements with the input and practical needs of state governments,” Napolitano, the former Arizona governor, said in a statement. “I am committed to supporting this important bill, and it is my hope that Congress will pass it into law and as quickly as possible.”

Sensenbrenner is not surprised by Napolitano’s support of what he considers a watered-down ID law.

“It’s not surprise that the governor of Arizona is for this. She always resisted Real ID,” he said. “It passed the Senate by 100-0 and was supported by Senators Biden and Obama.”

The Pass ID bill is under consideration in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was non-committal but seemed open to support it with changes.

“We must work with the states to help them create secure identification documents, while still protecting privacy concerns and ensuring that states can comply,” Lieberman said in a statement. “There are changes we can make to the PASS ID Act so that it meets these goals.”

The committee’s ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed more reservations in a statement.

“Certain language in the PASS ID Act may undermine that goal because it would not allow TSA to prevent a passenger from boarding a plane based ‘solely’ on the fact that he or she did not have a compliant license.” Collins said. “I think you’re creating a situation where a security official feels he or she has no choice but to let the person board the plane.”

The lack of a birth certificate requirement poses a great risk, said Stewart A. Baker, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, Baker talked about a Florida case where a man’s identity was stolen through using a fake birth certificate to gain a driver’s license. The thief used the fraudulently obtained license to buy guns and commit several crimes, including shooting four police officers and killing one of them.

The victim of the identity theft was sought out by police for the shootings. The matter was resolved, and the real culprit was captured, but it might have turned out differently, Baker said.

“It could have been a really fatal case of identity theft, not a case born out of a bad fake ID, but born out of a fake birth certificate,” Baker said. “The problem with the Pass ID act – birth certificates, not our problem. We’ll worry about that some other day.”

If the Federal Trade Commission regulated legislation the way they regulate advertising, the drafters of this legislation would face sanctions, Baker said.

“What we have is a classic case where we’ll have good IDs, because they will be hard to forge, but it’s going to be easy to get a fake ID,” Baker continued.

The Pass ID reforms will make Americans safer and lessen the burden on states said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the co-sponsors of the legislation.

“I believe this new legislation is a step forward in an ongoing effort to protect the country from harmful actors, as well as honoring citizens’ privacy concerns,” Carper said in a statement. “This legislation will reduce the cost and time of REAL ID implementation to the state of Delaware, as well as provide more privacy protections to our citizens that the earlier REAL ID Act of 2005 left out,” said Carper.

The Pass ID bill is a big improvement with regards to privacy over the Real ID law, said Ari Schwartz, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, by requiring less personally identifiable information be collected for the issuance of a driver’s license.

“Protecting privacy and security is an ongoing process that requires continual attention to new risks and the potential for profiling and fraud,” Schwartz said in a statement. “CDT will continue to work with Congress and the states to improve privacy and security in driver's license and ID card issuance and in associated back-end information systems.”

But the improvements are not enough for the ACLU, which sent a letter to members of Congress this week imploring them to oppose the legislation.

“We are united in opposing the Pass ID Act because we don't want a ‘National ID light,’” said Chris Calabrese, counsel to the ACLU technology and liberty program in a statement. "Since 24 states rejected it, Real ID is dead. Cosmetic changes should not be allowed to resuscitate this ill-advised law … The only fix in the Pass ID Act is the name. Congress might hope that the states who voted against implementing the Real ID Act will give them a pass on Pass ID, but that would be ill-advised.”