September 11? Don't get Karen Johnson started about September 11. "I simply don't buy that terrorists took the twin towers down," says the Arizona state senator, a 12-year Republican veteran of the legislature. Johnson laughs and sighs. "Come on! World Trade Center Building Seven wasn't even hit by an airplane! To me, 9/11 was a big cover-up."
It's the afternoon of June 18, and Johnson has been having a pretty good day. Hours earlier, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano signed House Bill 2677 into law, making Arizona the 20th state to adopt a resolution or statute opting out of the Real ID Act of 2005, which mandated that all 50 states and the District of Columbia switch to a standardized, database-compatible driver's license by May 11, 2008.
Arizona's anti-ID law, penned by Johnson, has teeth. State bureaucrats are required to "report to the governor and the legislature any attempt by agencies or agents" of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to cajole some kind of compliance. Gov. Napolitano, elected in 2002, is a rising Democratic star who was reportedly vetted by Barack Obama's campaign as a potential vice president. Johnson's relationship with her own party is somewhat less cozy. She voted against John McCain, Arizona's favorite son, in the state presidential primary and endorsed Ron Paul instead. She has been pilloried for her connections to the ultraconservative John Birch Society and for her very public suggestions—one of them made on the floor of the state Senate—that 9/11 was an inside job. The anti-conspiracy Web site Screw Loose Change calls her a "kook." Johnson can take it: She calls herself a "rightwing nut."
Deride them all you want, but the nuts are winning real victories for liberty, assembling a ragtag coalition that has managed to beat back one of the most egregious recent assaults on individual privacy. "I think Real ID is done in Arizona," says Mary Lunetta, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) liaison who worked with Johnson on HB 2677. "It's over." Michael Hough, a coordinator for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, thinks Real ID will meet a similar fate at the federal level. "Even the administration has backed off of implementing Real ID," Hough says. "It's not going to happen as it stands now."
The left/right, mainstream/fringe hydra of a movement to defeat Real ID in Arizona is a template that has worked in state after state. These strange, sweet victories are a sign that the United States is rediscovering its civil libertarian roots after the momentous disruption of 9/11.
A Skeptical Tradition
Americans probably would never have suffered through a debate over national ID cards—much less a bill mandating them—but for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Biometric identification cards have been rejected by panel after panel, pol after pol, pitchfork-wielding mob after pitchforkwielding mob, ever since the technology came online. In 1973, the year that the 12-digit Universal Product Code made its debut, the House of Representatives' Health, Education, and Welfare Advisory Committee rejected a national ID system on the grounds that it "would enhance the likelihood of arbitrary or uncontrolled linkage of records about people."
As the years passed, the consensus held. In 1977 the congressionally mandated Privacy Protection Study Commission, confronting the problem of identity theft, warned that a national ID and database of personal information would create more problems than they solved. It recommended that bureaucrats "halt the incremental drift toward creation of a standard universal label and central population register" until legislators found a way to keep the information secure.
In part, the commission's reluctance reflected the post-Watergate cynicism and paranoia of the 1970s. But its decision was also rooted in a historical and uniquely American aversion to having the central government issue—and demand on request—uniform ID cards. That cantankerous tradition flared up again in the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration's health care plan was attached to a system of biometric cards. Add to that the objections by affected interests such as state governments and "sin" industries, and opposition to a national ID scheme seemed etched in concrete.
Then came 9/11. During 2004 hearings held by the congressionally created National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, centralized ID made a comeback. The 9/11 commission ended up recommending some sort of biometric standardization of identification to prevent terrorists from collecting fake IDs the way some of the 19 hijackers had, although that recommendation was one of the few that didn't make into the December 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act. The law did, however, authorize a Real ID Advisory Committee to research possibilities for national standards. States, tech companies, and congressional staffs started cobbling together ideas.
"This was a state function that we were trying to keep a state function, albeit with national standards," recalls David Quam, a researcher at the National Governors Association who worked on the project. Other advocates shared Quam's localist approach. "The goal was to put the states in charge," says Brian Zimmer, who ran interference on the project between states and legislators on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee before becoming president of the lobbying group the Coalition for a Secure National ID. "The Department of Homeland Security, ideally, wouldn't even be involved with this."
But then the House of Representatives circumvented the process by pushing Real ID to the front of the legislative line. The impetus had little to do with terrorism and much to do with the incendiary politics of immigration.
Swept in by a Tsunami
In January 2005, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) called for a Social Security card that would contain a biometric photo ID to prevent illegal immigrant day laborers from using bogus Social Security numbers to get jobs. Dreier, a powerful and telegenic congressman first elected back in 1980, had nearly lost his long-safe seat two months earlier thanks to a national anti-immigration backlash headquartered in his own Orange County district. Chastened, he vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants by making Social Security cards much harder to get, although not, he promised, to the point of transforming them into national ID cards. To allay such fears, Dreier promised to stamp them with a disclaimer: "This is not a national ID card."
The proposal didn't make it to a vote, but the idea wasn't dead. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) had a more effective strategy. In January 2005 he introduced the Real ID Act, watched it pass the House by a vote of 261 to 161, but saw it die on the way to the Senate. So Sensenbrenner, who had been pushing for some sort of biometric national ID card since the 1990s, attached Real ID to an $83.6 billion March 2005 emergency supplemental spending bill to fund relief in Pacific nations devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. The House passed the package by a vote of 388 to 43, the Senate authorized a version by a vote of 99 to 0, and within two short months Real ID was signed into law by President George Bush. States had three years to develop IDs with machine-readable data (such as a bar code), verified by local departments of motor vehicles, linked together with databases that could be accessed by all other states.