WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) – In my flights since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I have been impressed by the careful pre-boarding inspection of passengers’ identification documents. For more than 80 percent airline passengers, the document of choice is either a state driver’s license or state non-driver photo ID, which has effectively made the driver’s license our de facto national ID card.
But I have also been discouraged because so much security effort is devoted to such a defective document.
There has been a good deal of discussion since the attacks about establishing a national ID card. Voices as diverse as high-tech mogul Larry Ellison and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz have called for such a document, while a poll taken soon after the attacks found that 70 percent of Americans support a national ID.
But the debate over whether we need a national ID is moot – we already have one. It just doesn’t work very well, but is trusted widely enough to be dangerous. The most workable solution is not to create a new national ID card, but rather to ensure that the one we already have actually works.
Sept. 11 showed that the United States needs a reliable, secure national ID right away. The forged or fraudulently obtained driver’s license allows alien terrorists and criminals to board airliners, get jobs, rent motor vehicles and small aircraft, and buy ammunition. Licenses also help foreign terrorists draw on public archives and libraries, open bank accounts and receive money from abroad, enter training programs and obtain other documents that support their falsified identities.
Few observers familiar with the process were shocked that the hijackers had little trouble getting driver’s licenses.
There are lots of reasons why driver’s licenses are not currently adequate to serve as our national ID card. To begin with, 50 states and various territories issue them, and each jurisdiction’s document is different from the next. Despite a campaign by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators for more uniformity, the formats, security features and databases of state licenses vary wildly. A majority do not require the Social Security number. Only a handful use biometrics, usually fingerprints. And there is a hodgepodge of mutually incompatible formulas for assigning unique numbers to drivers.
Nor is lack of uniformity the only problem. Income generated by licensing fees and customer service has taken priority over the reliability of the product. The authority to issue licenses is often delegated to county clerks, who often lack the tools, experience, or training to assess the dizzying array of supporting documents submitted by applicants.
Nearly 40 states issue licenses “over the counter,” allowing no time for careful background checks. Professional immigrant smugglers seek these lenient jurisdictions and route their clients to them. And heavy political pressure has resulted in many states’ issuing drivers licenses to illegals as a matter of policy. It is difficult to imagine an approach that would be more helpful to terrorists or anyone else who wishes to easily create a false identity.
But for all its faults, the driver’s license is the best prospect for quickly upgrading our national ID system. The issuing offices, personnel, and much of the data needed for rapid enrollment are already in place. Americans already are used to paying for their licenses and renewing them regularly with updated photos. Other options would be costly and slow to install, such as reissuing the Social Security card as a high-tech, tamper-proof document.
This approach – not reinventing the wheel – was endorsed at a congressional hearing late last year by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Alan Simpson, and others. Congress already recognized this in 1996, when it mandated certain uniform standards for state driver’s licenses and universal use of the Social Security number.
While the law was later killed by a coalition of privacy and states-rights interests, now is a good time to reopen and expand it. Technologically and politically, it is feasible for Washington to mandate uniform standards for a machine-readable driver’s license that requires a verified Social Security number and features electronic storage of digitized personal data (including a fingerprint), and which is part of a central, national file of people with driver’s licenses.
Some states are already tightening driver’s license rules for non-citizens. But the rule of “garbage-in/garbage out” still applies. The enrollment of millions will require painstaking scrutiny and the rapid exchange of information among state and federal agencies to authenticate birth certificates, immigration papers, and other basic, but easily falsified, documents. Washington will need to provide the states financial support in this effort.
No single policy change is going to eliminate the terrorist threat. But by improving the existing system for issuing and tracking driver’s licenses, we can enhance security without creating a costly new bureaucracy or infringing upon the rights of American citizens.
(David Simcox is chairman of the Washington.-based Center for Immigration Studies.)