DHS insists on states' complaince with Real ID

Published 24 March 2008

DHS wants all states to incorporate biometric and RFID technologies into the driver licenses they issue — or risk having citizens of states which fail to do so being barred from flights and federal buildings; the states argue that they do not have the funds to implement this mandate; DHS says it may be willing to be flexible, but at the end states would have to comply

DHS officials on Friday hinted at a possible face-saving deal to end their standoff with a handful of states over new driver’s license rules, a dispute which, if left unresolved, could cause big air travel headaches. For weeks, DHS has been headed toward a showdown with several states over the Real ID Act, which would require new security measures for state-issued driver’s licenses. Yet a late Good Friday letter from a top DHS official suggested Washington may be backing away from a messy fight. AP’s Delvin Barrett writes that South Carolina, Maine, and Montana are the only states that have not sought extensions to comply, or already started toward compliance with Real ID, which was passed in May 2003. On Friday, the federal agency granted Montana an extension, even though state officials didn’t ask for one and insist they will not adhere to the Real ID law. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer told AP that DHS “painted themselves in a corner.” A fourth state, New Hampshire, has asked to be exempted, but DHS officials have not found that letter legally acceptable, so the Granite State has not received an extension.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff had warned that if holdout states do not send a letter by the end of March seeking an extension, come May, residents of such states will no longer be able to use their driver’s licenses as valid ID to board airplanes or enter federal buildings. Such travelers would instead have to present a passport or be subjected to secondary screening. Five senators — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, and John Sununu of New Hampshire - appealed to Chertoff last week to exempt all 50 states from the looming deadline. Chertoff responded that it was not he but Congress that picked the date when the law went into effect in 2005. “You may disagree with the foregoing law, but I cannot ignore it,” Chertoff said in the letter. The law, he said, is necessary for national security according to recommendations from the commission that studied the 9/11 attacks. Yet hours after Chertoff sent those letters Friday, DHS assistant secretary Stewart Baker wrote to the attorney general of Montana, saying that even though the state was explicitly not seeking an extension, it would be granted one anyway. Baker reasoned the state’s new license security measures already met many of the Real ID requirements anyway. “I can only provide the relief you are seeking by treating your letter as a request for an extension,” Baker wrote. Schweitzer, Montana’s Democratic governor, said his state had not backed down. “We sent them a horse. If they choose to call it a zebra, that is their business,” said Schweitzer. The agency’s approach to Montana could provide an easy way out for the remaining states resistant to Real ID — and suggests the federal government doesn’t want to go ahead with its plan to conduct extra screening on residents of certain states. Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said Friday: “This concession is proof positive that in the face of opposition from the states, DHS will blink every time. Congress needs to step in and replace Real ID with a plan that works.”

If the two sides cannot cut a face-saving deal, Chertoff has offered a blunt warning to those critics who claim the government is bluffing. “Showing up at the airport with only a driver’s license from such a state will be no better than showing up without identification,” he wrote to the senators. “No doubt this will impel many to choose the inconvenience of traveling with a passport.” The end of the standoff with Montana does not necessarily mean the entire fight is over. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was considering legal action, and the state’s attorney general was preparing an opinion on whether the governor would have a case if he decided to sue the federal government. A spokesman for Attorney General Henry McMaster said the opinion will be released Monday. Chertoff has offered a plan to gradually implement Real ID requirements over a period of ten years, so that eventually all driver’s licenses would have several layers of security features to prevent forgery. They would also be issued only after a number of identity checks, including immigration status and verification of birth certificates. Critics of the plan say it is too expensive, is an invasion of privacy and won’t actually make the country safer.