USA Today Backs REAL ID

By Janice Kephart on August 18, 2009

In late July, the Senate Homeland Security Committee passed out of committee the PASS ID Act, the "repeal and replace REAL ID" legislation promised by DHS Secretary Napolitano to the Nationals Governors Association (NGA), the lobbying shop in which she was extremely active during her tenure as Arizona governor. While the NGA's original version of PASS ID has been amended for the better, it remains completely unnecessary, reduces security, and generally permits states to do little to nothing over current secure ID issuance procedures while giving them access to new federal monies.

Secretary Napolitano has been shopping her PASS ID around for some time now. But something happened at USA Today when they took a look at PASS ID; they actually did a brand comparison between REAL ID and PASS ID, and interestingly, upon close examination, they found better value in REAL ID, mostly because they looked beyond the advertising and tested out its ingredients.

As USA Today says, eight years after 9/11, it's too late to scrap REAL ID, especially when its replacement leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The text of the USA Today editorial follows:

Our view on national identity card: 8 years after 9/11, it’s too late to scrap Real ID and start over
What the new Homeland Security chief wants to replace it with is weak.

More than eight years have passed since 18 terrorists obtained the state driver's licenses or ID cards that allowed them to board the jetliners they hijacked on the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Four years have passed since Congress enacted an ambitious law, the Real ID Act, to avoid a repeat by making it tougher to obtain a driver's license fraudulently. Yet compliance remains wildly inconsistent.

From the moment the law passed, many states balked. Thirteen passed laws prohibiting compliance, and many have expended more energy fighting the law than trying to make their licenses secure. It is too expensive, they argue, and the databases needed to confirm identities are inadequate. So Real ID has languished, wasting a chance not only to deter terrorism but also to reduce identity theft, curb illegal immigration and reduce underage drinking, all by making the nation's identification-of-choice more secure.

Now, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who previously was governor of Arizona, one of the lagging states, is proposing to junk Real ID and replace it with what she says is a practical compromise. But the new plan, Pass ID, appears to be a needless retreat.

Where states have had the will, progress has been substantial.

In 2003, fewer than half the states even bothered to check Social Security numbers provided by applicants against a federal database. Now, according to the Homeland Security Department, all of them do.

Before Real ID, even fewer states used federal data to verify documents immigrants used to prove they were in the U.S. legally. Now, all but a handful do. Maryland was one of the last holdouts, but after the state became a magnet for illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses, it changed its law and has begun verifying their status.

Several states have found a range of benefits. When Indiana checked its 6 million drivers against a Social Security database, it ended up invalidating 19,000 licenses that didn't match. When it began using "facial recognition" technology to make its photos secure, the state caught a man who had 149 licenses with the same photo but different names.

Real ID does have its flaws, starting with the inadequate databases. Birth certificates, for instance, are obviously difficult to verify. But in the past few years, a dozen states and New York City have put together such databases, and five more are on their way, according to Janice Kephart, a security expert who was on the staff of the 9/11 Commission, which is where the push for more credible driver's licenses began.

Cost is another legitimate concern. The federal government should pay for the changes it demands. But it has already given states more than $130 million to tighten licensing procedures. Not enough, perhaps, but not a niggling amount, either, and hardly sufficient reason to cave in to the laggards.

Yet Pass ID would move in that direction.

It would weaken demands that states certify the legitimacy of documents. It would push back by years a requirement to verify the validity of birth certificates and remove the mandate for passport verification. It would also let states decide how to handle applicants whose Social Security numbers don't match federal databases. Instead, the databases should be improved and made easy for the states to use.

Eight years after 9/11, requiring states to have credible driver's licenses is not an extreme burden. But the evidence says all states will comply only if forced to do so.