The 9/11 Commission made the case that state driver's licenses
need to become a more secure credential. Congress
acted--twice, passing laws to establish national standards. Now
this common-sense initiative is under attack and may never be
implemented. Congress and the Administration must act decisively to
make the REAL ID program a reality. They need a strategy that
encourages states with the capacity to implement REAL ID to do
so quickly, demonstrating its viability and value. Once REAL
ID is underway, momentum will build for other states to join; their
citizens will not want to be left out of a program that
materially contributes to their safety, their prosperity, and the
protection of individual freedoms.
Why REAL ID? Identity is one of the cornerstones of a
free society. Many transactions, from cashing a check to boarding a
plane, are predicated on an assumption that free citizens in a free
society 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" (such as
birth certificates) that are used to obtain identification cards.
Billions of dollars is lost each year due to identity theft,
the fraudulent obtaining of government benefits, and other
criminal activities. In addition, the 9/11 hijackers obtained 17
driver's licenses and 13 state-issued identifications. Some had
duplicate driver's licenses.
This is unacceptable. Any costs involved in implementing
reasonably secure standard identification cards will be more
than recouped by the contribution that secure IDs make to
facilitating travel and commerce while combating criminal
exploitation of the freedoms of a free society.
What Is Required? 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. Both the Intelligence Reform and
Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and the REAL ID Act of 2005
required national standards including:
- Requiring individuals obtaining driver's licenses or personal
identification cards to present documentation to establish
identity, including U.S. nationality or lawful immigration status,
and then verifying the validity of the documents.
- Establishing physical security features for ID cards to prevent
tampering, counterfeiting, or fraud.
- Implementing security plans for state ID card issuance and
computer systems, including employee background checks.
- Ensuring that states share information to combat fraud and
other criminal activity.
What Is the Problem? In the time since Congress
acted, concerted efforts to undermine this program have
included calling for further deferral of its implementation,
demanding that the federal government spend tens of billions
of dollars to upgrade state issuance facilities, trying to
eliminate the requirement that citizenship or legal immigration
status be validated, or even killing the whole program because
of privacy concerns. None of these criticisms is warranted.
- Further postponing implementation will only encourage states to
avoid making the investments needed to implement the law.
Implementation has already been delayed until the end of 2009.
This provides more than enough time to establish regulations to
implement REAL ID and for states to undertake and fund the programs
needed for them to do their part.
- Expecting the federal government to foot the bill for states
that continually fail to provide their citizens secure IDs is
- Eliminating the requirement for states to certify citizenship
or lawful residence status undermines the purpose of REAL
- Raising the specter of privacy concerns is disingenuous.
The law does not give government more access to personal
information, nor does it create a national data base. In fact, the
law adds privacy protections by requiring more security and
background checks for government employees who handle personal
What Is the Answer? Congress and the Administration
need a strategy to jump-start REAL ID. Specifically, they
- Not expect states to use funds from homeland security
grants to implement REAL ID: That is just "robbing Peter to pay
Paul." Homeland security grants are meant to help build a
national preparedness and response system. Congress should
therefore appropriate specific funds for REAL ID, with the federal
government paying its fair share of the costs of
- Focus federal dollars on the states closest to
implementing REAL ID. This will show that the initiative can work
and demonstrate the benefits of the program.
- Work with states that want to ensure that their driver's
licenses meet federal standards under the Western Hemisphere Travel
Initiative so that they can be used instead of passports for travel
between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. This will make REAL ID even
more beneficial for states whose citizens frequently drive across
What Is Right for America? REAL ID is the right answer at
the right time. The alternatives are stark. One is to continue to
live in the "wild West," where documents are counterfeited or
exploited at will, costing the economy billions, disrupting the
lives of millions, and putting all at greater risk. The other is a
national identity card that will cost many times the expense of
implementing REAL ID and that really will be an additional
intrusion into the lives of all Americans. Compared to the options
of doing nothing or putting "Big Brother" in charge, REAL ID
offers a sensible and sound program for creating the secure
identity documents that are needed to help keep American safe,
free, and prosperous.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn
and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and
Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
at The Heritage Foundation.