WASHINGTON--One of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's most prominent Real ID cheerleaders made a more timid than usual push on Tuesday for states to adopt the controversial identification card standards.
Stewart Baker, the department's assistant secretary for policy, has touted what he perceives as the privacy-protective, identity theft-preventive features of the congressionally mandated Real ID driver's license regime during the past year.
But, clearly fearing criticism during a Tuesday morning speech at the spring meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, he saved any mention of the program until the tail end of a 20-minute speech about the perils of identity theft.
"One thing I will say," Baker said, almost couching his imminent pitch as something of an afterthought. "One of the key ways to catch identity thieves is better security for driver's licenses."
The former National Security Agency general counsel then launched into a kinder, gentler defense of Real ID, first acknowledging he expected "to get a little pushback on this."
"Real ID has a bad bumper sticker reputation," Baker said, "but what it boils down to is a set of standards for obtaining driver's licenses, so it's harder to obtain fraudulent driver's licenses."
Baker and other proponents argue that the scheme, which was passed as part of an emergency spending bill by Congress in 2005, is necessary to prevent terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants from successfully obtaining and using fraudulent driver's licenses. (For that reason, it's a "pro-consumer" and "antiterrorism" measure, Baker said Tuesday.) Privacy and civil liberties advocates, however, say the regime doesn't have enough checks built in to prevent abuse of information encoded on the licenses, and a number of states have balked at the cost of the mandate.
Homeland Security is pushing states "pretty hard" to come into compliance with Real ID requirements over the next 18 months and has gotten a "decent" response so far, Baker said. According to an agency-produced map, 45 states and the District of Columbia have already received deadline extensions, which means their driver's licenses will continue to be accepted for boarding airplanes and entering federal buildings come May 11, 2008, when the new rules kick in. But another five states--Maine, Montana, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Delaware--have said they will not comply. (See related story.)
Baker, for his part, characterized that continued resistance as "ideological and, in my opinion, based on misconceptions." Citing fake driver's licenses used by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and September 11 hijackers, he suggested the Real ID plan's requirements were something of an inevitability, even if they may be a bit costly.
"That's my proposal," Baker said at the close of his speech. "If you've got better ideas, then I'd really like to hear it."
None of the two dozen or so attorneys general present at the meeting raised their hands with questions or comments.
"It must be really early in the morning if Real ID doesn't get a bite," he quipped with a chuckle, before being handed a medallion as a "token of appreciation" from his hosts.