|McCain, 9/11 panel want national ID debate
| August 17 2004
The vice chairman of the Sept.
11 Commission told a Senate panel Monday that the commission's
recommendations on border and transportation security "might lead
to" a national identity card.
Although the commission shied away from
directly making the controversial call in its final report, "We did
recommend national standards for drivers' licenses," Vice Chairman
Lee Hamilton told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation
"Over time," he told committee Chairman
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "that might lead to a national ID card."
"Isn't that a fundamental issue that we're
going to have to address as a nation?" McCain asked Commission
Chairman Tom Kean.
Kean replied that the commission had
judged biometric screening -- using techniques like fingerprinting
or retinal scanning -- to be "a little less intrusive," but
acknowledged "A national ID card would be another way to do it."
The American Civil Liberties Union said in
a statement Tuesday that federal standards for drivers' licenses
constituted a "backdoor attempt to create a national ID-card system
and a serious threat to privacy, liberty and safety."
They said the idea "would provide a new
tool for racial, religious or ethnic profiling and would lead to far
more illegal discrimination."
The American Association of Motor Vehicle
Administrators, which represents state DMVs, welcomed the proposal.
"We concur with the commission's recommendation that the security of
both the issuance process for the state-issued driver's license and
the document itself need to be strengthened," said the group's
president, Linda Lewis.
But the emergence of the license as what
the association calls the "identification document of choice
throughout North America" has brought with it problems.
A number of state governments have faced
controversy since Sept. 11, 2001, about the so-called legal-presence
requirement, a law that requires applicants for a license to prove
their U.S. citizenship or their right to reside in the United
Advocates say such rules are essential to
maintain the integrity of the de facto national ID document, but
immigrants' rights advocates counter that trying to exclude
undocumented migrants turns "motor vehicles bureaus into immigration
agents -- without additional funds or adequate training," in the
words of the ACLU.
Motor vehicle administrators also have
reservations about the legal presence requirement. "Our initials are
D-M-V, not I-N-S," said American Association of Motor Vehicle
Administrators spokesman Jason King -- referring to the acronym of
the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into
the new Department of Homeland Security last year.
"We are the experts in driver licensing,
Tuesday, Hamilton said he thought McCain's
call for a debate on the issue of a national ID was right on the
"The American public is becoming more and
more agreeable to intrusiveness in order to protect themselves
against terrorist attacks," he said, adding that the idea was
nonetheless still controversial.
But in its final report last month, the
commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks Upon the United States, proposed changes to the nation's
identity regime more radical than federal standards for drivers'
The report recommended a seamless
biometric border so that everyone entering or leaving the country,
whatever their nationality, would have their identity biometrically
Currently, under the U.S.-VISIT program
only one category of travelers -- those foreigners holding visas --
is subjected to such a check, and then only at airports.
The Department for Homeland Security,
which runs U.S.-VISIT, plans to extend the system to cover
foreigners from the 27 visa-waiver nations who arrive without visas
and to roll it out gradually at border crossings beginning later
But even when U.S.-VISIT is complete at
the end of 2005, U.S. citizens will still be able to enter the
country without a biometric identity check. The State Department
recently announced that, by the end of that year, it will begin
issuing U.S. passports with a single biometric identifier -- a
digitized photograph that can be checked with facial-recognition
At Monday's hearing, Sen. George Allen,
R-Va., questioned the choice of facial recognition as the biometric,
saying it had a failure rate as high as 50 percent.
State Department officials point out that
the digital photograph is the international standard for passport
biometrics, agreed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
But advocates of biometric security for
travel documents say that this was simply the path of least
resistance -- people are used to submitting their photographs
"The harmonization with other countries is
important," acknowledged Allen. "But is it so important to disregard
the fingerprint-technology option, which I believe is superior to
the State Department's current plan?"
A State Department official pointed out
that collecting photographs from passport applicants and digitizing
them was easy, compared with having to install equipment to do
fingerprint scans at the 6,000-plus facilities -- including post
offices and court houses -- that currently accept passport
"First time applicants, or those whose
passports expired more than five years ago, have to apply in
person," the official said. "Installing fingerprint stations at all
those locations would be a serious logistical burden."
Privacy advocates also point out that,
since the passports and the data encoded on them will be machine
readable, using fingerprints as a biometric would effectively be
requiring U.S. citizens to hand a permanent digital record of their
prints to the government of any foreign country they visited.
The commission further advocated that the
biometric border be fully integrated with an internal system of
checkpoints, controlling access to the nation's critical
infrastructure and transport system, as well as federal buildings.
"That could be a recipe for a system of
internal controls that would treat people traveling within the
United States in the same way it treats those crossing its borders,"
cautioned Greg Nojeim, associate director of the ACLU's Washington