A top official at the Homeland Security Department said that much of the resistance to his agency's plan for nationwide driver's licensing standards is off base.
Last week, the department issued final regulations for states to implement the so-called REAL ID Act. At a Heritage Foundation event Wednesday, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker said the regulations are a reasonable solution to a pressing security issue.
Baker, who has served in many government positions, including as a former general counsel to the National Security Agency said REAL ID is a necessary mechanism for fighting terrorism and identity theft.
The final rules include relaxed state deadlines, particularly for the enrollment of older drivers. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the adjustments made by the department also will substantially reduce the cost of compliance.
Some states have openly rebelled against REAL ID, ignoring the threat that their licenses no longer will be accepted for federal purposes if they are not compliant with the law. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill also are considering bills to repeal the statute altogether.
Baker said the majority of Americans agree with what REAL ID aims to accomplish. He noted that the panel that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks recommended that the nation's licensing system be tightened. The terrorists involved in the attacks were able to obtain driver's licenses from Virginia and other states.
Baker also said REAL ID would help ensure that illegal immigrants do not use fraudulent documents to gain employment, and he said the law would curb identity theft.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute and other groups that oppose REAL ID have said it would erode privacy. They also have criticized the Bush administration for taking so long to issue guidance to states and have accused Homeland Security of essentially passing the buck to future administrations.
Baker said it was inevitable that REAL ID deadlines were going to need to be extended in order to give states enough time to carry out the law without forcing citizens to wait in massive lines to obtain new credentials. But he said that "virtually all responsible states" will sign on to the program and do so during this administration.
"In the long run, we're going to prevail," he said.
ACLU Legislative Counsel Tim Sparapani said in a telephone interview that Homeland Security's regulations still do not address many of the law's biggest privacy flaws, particularly with how states are supposed to protect driver information. He also said the agency has guaranteed that future presidents are going to have to deal with the problems it has created.
"The public, instead of listening to what they say, should be watching what they're doing," Sparapani said. "It's clear to anyone who's watching closely that Homeland Security is simply trying to get out from underneath the REAL ID Act and pay lip service to having implemented it."