“Shame on us if we don’t do something to get a handle on what is the principal form of identification used in this country.”

So said Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday in defense of the REAL ID Act, signed by the president in 2005. The act set federal minimum standards that state driver’s licenses must meet by May 2008 if they are to be accepted for federal purposes (e.g., at airport security screening). States will have to verify identity documents presented by license applicants, check applicants’ immigration status, and place security features in licenses in order to prevent tampering and protect privacy.

Improving document security was a central recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. Its co-chairman, former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, has said that the REAL ID Act is “vital for the protection of the country.” And with good reason: A new paper from 9/11 Commission counsel Janice Kephart shows how the hijackers obtained a total of 17 driver’s licenses and 13 non-driver IDs, seven of them by fraudulent means. At least six of the hijackers used these IDs to board their planes.

Until this week, there was a real possibility that a bill to “fully implement” the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission would include a measure that effectively repealed the Real ID Act. But the Bush administration avoided this outcome by announcing Thursday that states would get extra time (until the end of 2009) to meet the standards. As part of a deal with Maine Republican senator Susan Collins, sponsor of an anti–REAL ID bill, states would also be permitted to use up to 20 percent of their homeland-security funds on this task.

Any delay in improving the integrity of identification documents is potentially dangerous, but the administration’s move was probably a practical necessity. What’s important is that it stood by REAL ID. “We’re sympathetic to the states,” Secretary Chertoff said, “but we’re not walking away from one of the core recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.” He also emphasized that extensions would be granted only to those states that present plans for compliance.

This unequivocal defense of the REAL ID Act is especially welcome in light of intense opposition to the law from some quarters. The ACLU and its fellow-travelers on the right have denounced the law as creating a national identification card, with the usual sophomoric references to the Gestapo. At the same time, state governments that have long been content with their laughably insecure identification documents are now objecting to the cost of complying with the new standards, and complaining of an unfunded mandate. The Maine legislature in January passed a nullification resolution “refus[ing] to implement the REAL ID Act.” Other states may follow Maine’s lead, and the National Governors Association has called for a delay of up to ten years.

Of the two main gripes—ideological and fiscal—the first is easy to deal with. The act simply does not create a national ID card. Any modern society must have a means of identifying people—for national security, business transactions, and more. Most countries have opted for unitary national-identification documents. The U.S., on the other hand, has over the years stumbled into a decentralized approach, with state motor-vehicle administrators taking the lead. Regardless of whether this system is ideal, it is the system we already have, and it needs to be more secure. Moreover, as Phyllis Schlafly has written, the REAL ID Act may be “the best way to prevent the demand for a national ID card, which might prove irresistible if we suffer another terrorist attack on our own soil.”

As for the fiscal objection, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators have calculated that compliance with the new standards will require $1 billion in one-time infrastructure costs, while Congress has only provided $40 million in the REAL ID Act. Even if this proves to be an exaggeration, the cost problem is real and should be met by disbursing more federal money if the homeland-security funds already provided are insufficient. This would be somewhat unfair to taxpayers in states such as Colorado, New York, and Virginia, which have already come into nearly full compliance. But the government’s interest in protecting national security is compelling enough to justify further federal assistance.

Of course, the apportioning of costs is a secondary issue. The main point is best captured in the words of the 9/11 Commission: “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.” Bravo to the Bush administration for recognizing this. Congress should follow suit and resist any future efforts to gut the REAL ID Act.


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