Standards must be urgent priority to keep nation secure after 9/11

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Standards must be urgent priority to keep nation secure after 9/11

Feb 8th, 2008 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Members of the 9/11 Commission suggested it. Twice, Congress passed laws requiring it. Yet, more than six years after the 9/11 attacks, America still lacks voluntary national standards for identity cards such as driver's licenses.

But that may change soon.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security finally announced a plan to establish minimum standards for state-issued ID cards that are used for federal purposes (such as passenger screening at U.S. airports).

Although some states have vowed to challenge this plan, Maryland, to its credit, is not among them.

The program that would set up these standards is usually called Real ID (a nickname that came from the title of one of the congressional laws). And there is no reason why states should fail to comply with it.

In truth, the Real ID standards are nothing new. They're the kinds of measures organizations such as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators have long suggested to combat fraud, identity theft and other crimes, as well as to improve customer service. It's just that nobody listened.

Then 9/11 happened, and Americans discovered that terrorists had fraudulently obtained or misused almost two dozen driver's licenses.

The 9/11 Commission concluded that "the federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver's licenses." Congress acted.

Chief among the arguments used against Real ID is the notion that the law would require a national database. Wrong. All the identity-card information would still be under the control of the state. If Maryland complied with Real ID, federal officials wouldn't know any more about you than they already do.

The law does not invade individual privacy or increase opportunities for identity theft. In fact, the standards established by Real ID do the opposite. The law, for example, requires background checks of all personnel who issue licenses - the people who will have access to your sensitive personal data. States retain their sovereignty and traditional responsibilities.

And, no, the law isn't a massive unfunded mandate from Washington. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has worked hard to make the implementation of Real ID less costly, and there are federal funds available to help establish the program. States are far more likely to save money because of reductions in identity theft, entitlements fraud and other crimes.

Real ID is a sensible program for improving the authenticity of identity documents. Real ID isn't a national identity card or even "Big Brother" light. And in the end, it would probably help states financially.

Sincere opponents of Real ID have all the right concerns. Government shouldn't intrude irresponsibly into our lives or threaten our freedoms and privacy. Washington shouldn't hand out unfunded mandates. And states shouldn't run around implementing security measures that don't make us safer.

The concerns are correct, but aiming these criticisms at Real ID isn't. The folks in Washington have worked hard to implement the program in a way that addresses them. They've done the right thing in this case. Let's give them credit for that and move on.

James Jay Carafano  is senior research fellow for national security and homeland security in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Baltimore Sun