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Leahy Raises REAL ID Act Revolt

WASHINGTON –- The REAL ID Act took some hard shots today in another round of congressional sparring over the controversial measure critics claim is the first step toward a national identification card.

Approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2005, the law is based on one of the recommendations of 9/11 Commission.

The measure has yet to be implemented due to opposition from a number of states and civil liberties and privacy groups. The total cost of implementation to the states ranges as high as $23 billion.

"The days of Congress rubberstamping any every idea cooked up by this Administration are over," U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "We need to see real solutions with demonstrable results before we just throw away billions of dollars... in the name of some vague claims of enhanced security."

The original deadline for compliance with the REAL ID Act was May 11 of next year, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March gave states another year and a half to comply.

In the meantime, Leahy, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has thrown his support behind a bill that would repeal the driver's license portion of the REAL ID Act. Democrats have introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House.

Under the REAL ID Act, Leahy said, "State motor vehicle officials will be required to verify the legal status of applicants, adding to the responsibilities of already heavily burdened state offices."

The standardized information called for in the REAL ID Act includes proof of date of birth and legal status, such as passports, birth certificates or permanent resident cards. To provide proof of Social Security numbers, applicants will need a Social Security card or other valid document like a W-2 form.

State agencies would be required to scan all documentary evidence into a database that could be shared by other states. Without the new ID, individuals would not be allowed to board airplanes or enter federal buildings.

"The security risks of this database are enormous. It would be kludge of existing databases that are incompatible, full of erroneous data and unreliable," Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, told the panel. "Computer scientists don't know how to keep a database of this magnitude secure."

Schneier said even if the databases could be kept secure, the DHS is missing the point.

"We still wouldn't be getting much security," he said. "A reliance on ID cards is based on a dangerous security myth, the idea that if only we knew who everyone was, we could pick the bad guys out of the crowd."

Jim Harper, director of information studies at the Cato Institute, said states would have to "cross a minefield of complicated and expensive technology decisions" in order to comply with the law. He also noted that the Privacy Act did not contemplate that states would maintain a system of records in furtherance of federal activities.

The Heritage Foundation's James Carafano told lawmakers Congress should not implement a universal national identity card. "On the other hand, an absence of national standards in the face of the current onslaught efforts to obtain or falsify documents for criminal or other malicious purposes makes no sense in the 21st century."

Carafano added the REAL ID Act does not create a national ID card but establishes national standards for state-issued identification used for a federal purpose, such as boarding an airplane.

"Congress should not back off the requirement for national standards and appropriate reasonable funds to help states meet requirements under the REAL ID Act," he said.

Janice Kephart, who served as counsel to the 9/11 Commission, also urged lawmakers to stick with the new law.

"Secure IDs are essential for assuring people are who they say they are," Kephart said. "That goes for not only travel documents, but all forms of ID. Remember that the 9/11 terrorists... had a travel operation that included the acquisition of state-issued IDs."

The deadline for public comment on the REAL ID Act closes this week. The DHS is expected to issue regulations by the end of the year.