Sen. John E. Sununu: REAL ID – unnecessary, unfunded and unlikely to make you safer

Another View

WHEN THE 9/11 Commission released its report nearly two years ago, the commissioners made several recommendations which they believed would, if implemented, make us safer. One such recommendation stated, “The federal government should set standards for the issuance of . . . sources of identification, such as drivers’ licenses.” The commission made this simple proposal to decrease the likelihood of terrorists using falsely obtained forms of identification to access sensitive security areas, such as airplanes and government buildings.

During the summer and fall of 2004, I worked as a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (now the Homeland Security Committee) to help craft, pass and send to President Bush legislation to address the concerns and recommendations set forth by the commission.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act, which was signed into law in December of 2004, addressed the issue of identification security by creating a collaborative process for developing minimum standards for drivers’ licenses, such as name, address, photo and signature. This approach, which included governors, state legislators and motor vehicle administrators, was supported by members of both parties in Congress, endorsed by the White House, and satisfied the commission’s recommendations regarding identification documents. Most important, the legislation was mindful of states’ rights and avoided the creation of a national ID, massive databases and billions of dollars in unfunded federal mandates.

Unfortunately, in March of 2005, REAL ID Act supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives, having failed to include it in the Intelligence Reform Act three months earlier, attached their measure to an emergency spending bill to fund tsunami relief efforts and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The opposition of a handful of senators was not enough to strip REAL ID from this “must pass” bill. In fact, at the time, many elected officials both inside and outside of Congress were reluctant to join me in raising concerns for fear of being branded “soft on terrorism.” As a result, passage of the REAL ID Act eliminated a cooperative and common sense approach for improving drivers’ license security signed into law just five months earlier.

The flaws of REAL ID are fundamental and are slowly being realized by observers across the country. First, the law ignores a basic state right to determine standards and eligibility for issuing a driver’s license. For the first time, federal mandates have been established for categories of eligible drivers, temporary licenses, information to be displayed on a license, and data collection by motor vehicle officials. Once again, the arrogance that pervades Washington has led to the preposterous conclusion that states are incapable of upgrading and implementing new standards themselves.

Second, the bill creates a de facto national ID and raises serious privacy concerns by requiring all states to have similar license features, and to be connected to a national database which will contain personal information on all drivers, including name, address, Social Security number and photo. This system also carries the potential unintended consequence of establishing a “gold standard” for fraudulent activity. A fraudulently obtained “national license” could open doors for terrorists in situations that previously might have required supporting or secondary documentation or identification.

Third, this system will impose billions of dollars in new costs on states. Consider just a few of the requirements states must address by May of 2008: departments of motor vehicles must capture an electronic image of any “source” document utilized, such as a birth certificate; maintain images for 10 years; retain paper copies for seven years; subject each license applicant to a mandatory facial image capture; reconfirm all information pertaining to a license renewal; confirm all Social Security numbers with the Social Security Administration; and refuse a license or identification card to a person holding a driver’s license issued by another state without confirmation that the person is terminating, or has terminated, the driver’s license.

And people think it takes a long time to get a license now?

Simply put, the REAL ID Act replaced sound policy with bad policy. It has been denounced by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and organizations on the left and right of the political spectrum. In the coming months, I will work to minimize the potential cost of these mandates, insist on state participation in reviewing new federal requirements, and safeguard personal records and civil liberties as national databases are inevitably created. I only wish that others had spoken more forcefully when a few of us in Congress tried to fight the emotional rhetoric and prevent an unnecessary bill from becoming law.

John E. Sununu represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.

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