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Is Real ID plan on its deathbed?

Some opponents think so. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, however, vehemently denies that's the case.

The U.S. government's controversial plan to outfit all Americans with uniform electronic identification cards--officially known as Real ID--may be on its deathbed, opponents of the program charged this week.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has long said that starting as soon as May 2008, and definitely after May 2013, it will deny state citizens the right to board planes or enter federal buildings unless they show Real ID-compliant documents.

But on a recent conference call with state officials from across the country, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Richard Barth gave the impression that the agency doesn't plan to punish states that have rejected the rules, according to Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Barth also reportedly said Homeland Security may push back the deadline until 2015.

"To me, this signals the real end of the Real ID Act because it prevents the government from having any leverage over the states," Sparapani said in a conference call his group organized with reporters Thursday afternoon.

Homeland Security, for its part, vehemently denied any softening of its policy.

"The ACLU is living in a fantasy world," spokeswoman Laura Keehner said. "They continue to spout off erroneous information to confuse and mislead the public about a core finding of the 9/11 Commission and a mandate from Congress. In this instance, they could not be further from the truth."

The ACLU has been one of the loudest voices attacking the regulations, which were passed as part of an emergency war-spending bill in 2005. They and other critics, including privacy advocates and conservative groups, argue that the federal mandate is overly expensive, potentially invasive to privacy, and ineffective in meeting the government's stated goal, which is rooting out terrorists.

Maine government

Dunlap, a Democrat, and Missouri state legislator Jim Guest, a Republican, backed up the ACLU's gloom-and-doom assessment on Thursday's conference call, indicating that they believe Real ID was ill-fated all along. Both of their states are among the 17 states that have now passed laws or resolutions opposing Real ID or outright rejecting its implementation.

"They were asked point-blank, 'What will happen to states that don't participate?'" Dunlap said of his conversation with Homeland Security officials. "The response was, 'Nothing will happen. There will be no penalty. You can still get on a plane.'"

'A practical consequence'
Homeland Security's Keehner declined to comment directly on the conversations referenced by the ACLU and Dunlap, but she disputed their interpretations.

"There will be a practical consequence for residents of states whose leadership chooses the status quo and accepts noncompliant licenses," she said. "For example, they will not (be) able to fly on an aircraft or enter a federal building with a noncompliant license."

One possible way of interpreting Barth's alleged remarks to the state officials is this: Real ID-compliant drivers licenses, per se, won't be the only acceptable form of documentation for those activities when the rules take effect. A U.S. Department of State-issued passport, for instance, or forthcoming border-crossing passport cards are among the list of documents that will suffice, as Homeland Security officials have said before. But it's not clear that was the context for the statements related by the ACLU and the state officials.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security continues to defend the Real ID regime as necessary to improve the authenticity and security of identification documents. Their stated goals are to keep rogue individuals sporting fake credentials from doing harm to Americans and to protect Americans from identity theft.

But opponents of Real ID still predict that the mandate won't hold up as-is, particularly as more states move toward enacting anti-Real ID laws. (Not all states are taking that path, however--New York Governor Eliot Spitzer said earlier this week that his state would be working with Homeland Security to come up with a Real ID-compliant "enhanced driver's license," though details remain murky.)

They also point to the fact that Homeland Security still hasn't issued final rules for the program and to recent steps taken by Congress, including rejection this summer of an extra $300 million in federal grants to help states carry out the plan. Homeland Security didn't respond to questions Friday about when the final rules are expected to be ready.

"It has certainly created a hardship on lots of people," Missouri's Guest said of the requirements.