The Real Importance of REAL ID: A Strategy for Saving the SecureDriver's License Initiative

Report Homeland Security

The Real Importance of REAL ID: A Strategy for Saving the SecureDriver's License Initiative

May 4, 2007 4 min read Download Report
James Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

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 wrong.
  • Eliminating the requirement for states to certify citizenship or lawful residence status under­mines the purpose of REAL ID.
  • 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 data.

What Is the Answer? Congress and the Admin­istration need a strategy to jump-start REAL ID. Specifically, they should:

  • 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 implementation.
  • 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 the border.

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.


James Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute