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Feds still love Real ID despite growing opposition

FBI director, Homeland Security chief and intelligence leaders endorse controversial Real ID scheme despite continued questions from senators.

Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered states a new deadline of February 2008; this deadline had actually been announced earlier.

WASHINGTON--A controversial plan for national identification cards known as Real ID drew another ringing endorsement from top Bush administration officials on Monday, even as senators continued to question the law's privacy implications and cost.

Cheerleading for the mandate was led by the retiring Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who called a nationalized ID card a top priority. He asked the four Bush administration officials present to divulge whether they supported the idea, which was recommended by the 9/11 Commission but has sparked rebellion from numerous states and civil liberties advocates concerned about its cost and potential for abuse.

One by one, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and National Counterterrorism Center Director John Redd--said they fully endorsed the idea. Each ranked it as a high priority.

Draft regulations issued earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security dictate that starting May 11, 2008, residents of all states must begin presenting compliant electronic cards in order to board airplanes or enter federal buildings--that is, unless their respective states file for a reprieve starting October 1 of this year. That deadline, coupled with the compliance costs, is one of the main reasons why individual states are leading something of a Real ID rebellion in opposition to the federal mandate.

But with Homeland Security not expecting to issue its final Real ID rules until October, one Republican politician said he was concerned states won't have enough time to digest the regulations and ask for relief. "How are you going to address that administrative train wreck?" Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) asked Chertoff at the Senate Homeland Security Committee event, which focused on steps the United States has taken to "confront the terrorist threat" and was pegged to the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Chertoff said the department has indicated that it would be "quite reasonable in terms of extensions," offering states until the end of 2009 to outline how they plan to outfit their residents with the new cards by 2013. He later added that the states will have until February to request deadline extensions for submitting those plans--as opposed to October, which Sununu appeared to believe was the final cutoff.

Sununu also raised privacy concerns, asking Chertoff to explain how the department plans to ensure that data stored on the IDs is adequately protected, particularly since the Real ID regime requires that those fields be shareable among all state motor vehicle departments. (The idea behind that requirement is to help keep the same person from obtaining a drivers license in more than one state.)

Chertoff downplayed the worries, claiming that a new obligation that all motor vehicle employees undergo federal background checks "is going to elevate the level of privacy," and implying such a step would help keep off the payrolls employees who would abuse their access to the databases. (Chertoff recently reiterated that he believes Real ID will actually strengthen Americans' personal privacy, a position with which civil liberties groups vehemently disagree.)

Sununu and another Real ID skeptic, committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine), also told the Homeland Security chief that they're also still concerned about the costs states will have to bear in reworking their drivers license systems. Warner, for his part, said he would try again to seek additional federal dollars for the state-level projects--a move that has failed twice this summer alone.