(CNSNews.com) - When Turkish nationals sought to buy Florida driver's licenses in 2003 without taking the required examination, a tip-off by a concerned citizen alerted counter-terrorism officials, who then used undercover agents to infiltrate the group.
After monitoring the suspects for a two-month period, officials learned that they were also seeking certification to haul hazardous material across the country. Twenty were arrested. Those here illegally were deported, while others were prosecuted, convicted and jailed.
The suspects were willing to pay $1,000 for a conventional driver's license, $2,000 for a commercial vehicle license and $3,000 for a hazardous material certification, investigators say.
Although the suspects' ultimate intentions were not established, the case exposed a potentially dangerous vulnerability in the nation's identification system that could be exploited by determined terrorists, according to Tom Storrar, an immigration task force member stationed in Fort Myers, Fla.
The case is among those cited by public policy experts who believe it necessary to clamp down by instituting national standards for forms of identification.
The Real ID Act of 2005 is step in the right direction, says James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The legislation is designed to close loopholes by establishing strict protocols each state must follow before it issues a driver's license that would be recognized as valid identification for federal purposes.
It stipulates what data must be included on the license and what identification forms must be presented by the individual before one can be issued. The act also calls on states to share their databases. To be in compliance, physical security features must also be incorporated into the license as a way of guarding against tampering or duplication.
Part of the rationale behind the legislation is to prevent anyone without a federally approved state-issued ID from boarding an aircraft. If strictly enforced, it would have the added benefit of preventing potential terrorists from using state driver's licenses to gain employment, supporters argue.
The 19 9/11 hijackers managed to obtain 17 driver's licenses and 13 state-issued forms of identification. In congressional testimony last May, Carafano reminded members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that some of the terrorists even had duplicate driver's licenses.
"Identity is one of the cornerstones of a free society," he told them. "Verification of identity precludes more invasive intrusions into the lives and pursuits of average Americans. In a free society, many transactions -- from cashing a check to boarding a plane -- are predicated on an assumption that free citizens should be free to act as they choose under the rule of law.
"That is why criminals and terrorists work so assiduously to obtain identity instruments or the 'breeder documents' like birth certificates that are used to obtain identification cards."
Carafano told Cybercast News Service the Real ID Act would help to prevent tampering, counterfeiting and fraud, which cost billions of dollars each year.
However, the legislation is under attack, he said, citing a "concerted effort" to undermine the effectiveness of the new law. As it now stands, implementation has been delayed until the end of 2009. Moreover, Carafano noted, opponents are trying to eliminate a key provision requiring states to verify citizenship or legal immigration status.
'Too much information'
As far as Jim Harper of the libertarian Cato Institute is concerned, this is a good thing. The Real ID Act "throws the door wide open" to surrendering too much information and too much privacy to the federal government, he said.
Rather than provide additional layers of security, the legislation places citizens in greater jeopardy, Harper argued. Since every state database would have scanned copies of birth certificates, passports and other sensitive documents, he said, any breach of this database would place citizens of that state at substantial risk.
Harper said the new documents would essentially operate as a form of national ID and usher in more intrusive government.
"Looking out across the horizon, the government will have deep databases of where people have been day in and day out throughout their lives," he said. "There's an argument that these new documents would not be national ID because they are issued by states. But if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck."
Harper is also concerned about worksite enforcement initiatives, saying they would subject Americans to an overly bureaucratic and cumbersome employment process. "The theory of internal enforcement is running up against the idea that we are a free country, he said. "The only way to have this kind of enforcement is to put every American in a system, and that means a national ID."
Instead of moving in the direction of a rigid, federalized identification system, Harper favors keeping in place the current I-9 system -- which enables employers to identify whether an employee is in the country and allowed to work legally. Even so, he acknowledges deficiencies.
"The I-9 system is very sloppy, but it's about the right way to do it," he said. "You want to have enough wiggle room in the system so you're not sending people into the federal bureaucracy."
Carafano does not see the Real ID Act as a form of national ID. The law is constructed specifically to ensure that "key identification materials" meet national standards of authenticity when used for a federal purpose, such as security checks and access to transportation, he said.
He also dismissed the privacy arguments, saying during his congressional testimony that they were "disingenuous."
"The law does not give the government more access to personal information, nor does it create a national database," he told lawmakers. "In fact, the law adds privacy protections such as requiring more security and background checks for government employees who handle personal data."
At the same time, Carafano acknowledged that some proposals coming out of Congress would be both intrusive and unnecessary -- for instance, recommendations for a "universal system" to verify workplace eligibility.
"It is myth to say you need massive new legislation to do worksite enforcement," he said. "The unlawful workers are overwhelmingly present in five sectors of the economy ... construction, government services, restaurants, hotels and agriculture. You don't need to do 100 percent worksite enforcement. Illegal workers are not uniformly distributed throughout the economy."
Several states have expressed stiff opposition to the law. Utah last February passed a resolution saying the Act is "in opposition to Jeffersonian principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited government." The Maine legislature refused to move toward implementation of the law and favors repealing the measure.
By contrast, Alabama has already stepped up efforts to bring its identification system online with the Real ID requirements. Haran Lowe, the state's assistant attorney general, said state officials trained in federal immigration law are deployed at every location where a foreign national is permitted to acquire a license.
The tighter requirements are seen as essential following high-profile cases involving illegal workers, including the arrest of 17 illegal aliens at a chemical refinery in January 2005, he told Cybercast News Service.
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