Who Killed Real ID?

An unlikely coalition wins a post-9/11 victory for civil liberties

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.

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  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    I am delighted with this but as a cynic I have to point out that the state Driver License already functions as a national id card as does your social security number (to a lesser extent).

    Certainly it's nice to see Governor Janet stand up on her hind legs and say NO, but it's a little late.

    As an aside, Governor Janet is also pretty adamant about instituting Pre-K at taxpayer expense.

    By the time those kids are grown retina scans will be as common as measles vaccinations.

  • ||

    It's a small victory, but dammit, we lovers of freedom and skeptics of ther feds need some few small wins.

    It's worth a toast.

  • dave w.||

    wtc7 was demolished by explosives.

  • ||

    can we get another Palin thread soon? i'm jonesin' real bad here.

  • ||

    Everytime I see anything about Real ID, I flash back to scenes at train stations in the old WWII movies.

    A weasel in black leathers and jackboot, hand outstretched, penetrating dour stare, saying "Peperzzzzzzz?"

  • Mister DNA||

    In addition to the financial incentives, the Federal gov't also failed to give REAL ID a cool name like, "The Super Freedom I Love America Fan Club Card".

  • ||

    I think if the Real ID card also replaced your ATM, credit, grocery store, gym, work ID, etc. it would have gone over better. Or maybe all that should be a chip under your arm so that you can't loose it.

  • ||


  • Texpat||


    Dreier does not represent Orange County.

  • ||

    Real thorough and interesting article. Thanks.


  • I am Spartacus||

    It is only a matter of time, bigger sticks, or juicier carrots before some form of REAL ID passes.

    If it only takes $150 billion in bribes to pass the bailout...

  • 666||


    OBAMA = the antiCHRIST ???

  • Naga Sadow||

    I'm a bartender and I constantly check id's. Security here, however, has a cool little gadjet that runs your id. They don't even match the pictures up with the person in front of them.

  • ||

    The only ideology that defeated the Real ID act, if it's really defeated at all, was if the feds mandate it, they should pay for it. If the feds decided to pay for it, most states would drop their opposition.

  • ||

    TrickyVic | October 6, 2008, 2:22pm | #
    The only ideology that defeated the Real ID act, if it's really defeated at all, was if the feds mandate it, they should pay for it. If the feds decided to pay for it, most states would drop their opposition.


  • the innominate one||

    good article, David.

    bottom line: bipartisanship good, just this once?

  • ||

    "wtc7 was demolished by explosives."

    Not unless someone invented silent explosives, sunshine.


  • Ben1||

    Your SSN has been your "real id" for years now. You can't bank without it; you can't get a job above menial work without it; you can't get credit without it; you can't get insurance without it... this door was closed long ago.

    Can you say "Here's my ID" to the nice man in the jackboots? Of course you can. You've been doing so for years.

    And if you don't, you're going to jail. Right now. And if you elect to remain silent, they'll elect to "simulate drowning" until you say what they want. Or they'll taser you. Or they'll plant drugs on you, or your kids.

    This is not the government the constitution mandates. It is exercising power far beyond any authority ever granted it.

    Happy discussion of real id doesn't change a thing; you're a fully enslaved subject of the royal 545 and there isn't a darned thing you can do about it.

  • ||

    Your SSN has been your "real id" for years now. You can't bank without it; you can't get a job above menial work without it; you can't get credit without it; you can't get insurance without it... this door was closed long ago.

    Yep, that is true. People do not exist without the SSN. As a matter of fact, the SSN would not be useful at all (except for the government) if there were no legal tender laws. It has been the Marxian 5th point (central banking) that placed the final nail on your freedom's coffin.

  • ||

    Naga Sadow's point seems to be ignored. I live in MA, I have a barcode on my license, it is real ID ...lots of other states have this as well....Real ID is here!

    "no slave is so dominated as the slave who thinks he is free."

  • ||

    Anyone surprised that stealing a trillion dollars from the middle class didn't save the economy?

    Now they have "unreviewable authority", think they aren't going to use it to steal more from us?

  • ||

    It seems a better ID system will not happen until another crisis occurs.

    So far the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration, identity theft, and voter fraud have been unable to push this nation to fully adopt the Real ID.

    What will tip the nation into accepting it?

    What if one day a nominee for President was thought to actually not be naturally born, and could not offer proof that he was?

    It seems plausible that a majority of people would not want that to happen and support a better ID.

  • ||

    Is Real ID really dead? Really? From where I sit, it just looks like a pause in the action.

    Was the bailout dead when the House (constitutionally required to originate all money bills) defeated it? Hardly.

    Only some seismic shifts in the direction of liberty have the potential of saving us from dropping all the way to the bottom of the slippery slope. The only message powerful enough to arrest the slide, not to mention reverse it, is to kick out all the incumbents, especially or at least those who voted yes on the bailout. An even more important message would be sent if their replacements were not their opponents in the other big party, but rather third-party or independent candidates, everywhere credible alternative candidates are running.

  • ||

    This article is weird, I assume David is against real ID, but It immediately poisons the argument of those against real ID by saying right of the bat, "You know how is against Real ID, CRAZY 9/11 TRUTHERS"

    It would be like a pro-McCain writer staring an article of by saying "You know who else will vote for McCain, WHITE SUPREMISISTS"

  • ||

    """I'm a bartender and I constantly check id's. Security here, however, has a cool little gadjet that runs your id. They don't even match the pictures up with the person in front of them.""""

    How do they match the person to the ID if they don't look at the photo?

  • ||

    Or is that your point?

  • Sheila Dean||

    I kind of feel like the article is a premature memorial to an act that isn't dead yet. This act is still rooted at the federal level. Unless we repeal it the more dangerous and damaging ciphers will start to crop up. In Texas there are initiatives for drivers license checkpoints where ID's will be randomly required from anyone who is driving. Does this sound like East Berlin, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia to you? This fight is far from over. The fate of our foe has yet to feel much more than some snap back over states rights {THANK GOD!}. Please use your second win and your gloating to take on the REAL man in this fight -FEMA/DHS & your CEO in Chief.

  • ||

    Sadly, no one will give a shit until they start throwing us into ovens.

  • ||

    I think that it actually makes a lot of sense to have a national ID card. It shouldn't be in the form of a driver's license though.

  • Myrisa||

    Unfortunately, the only place where the DHS Real-ID program is being implemented is in Puerto Rico, a US territory in which, ironically, the governor (D), who has been indicted with 24 counts of federal crimes and claims persecution for political reasons, hailed the application of the Real-ID scheme at the local government's expense.

  • ||

    It smells like... Victory.

  • Mark Lerner||

    My name is Mark Lerner. I am the Co-Founder of the Stop Real ID Act Coalition which is comprised of many people including lawmakers. We are non partisan. We take exception to the article because it provides too many inaccurate statements and further does not discuss the fact that Real ID is international not just national. We would ask that the public and lawmakers read our latest update on our home page. It not only provides information that the "article" does not address but facts that the public will be outraged about. We supply the substantiating documents to support each fact we present. The "fox" is coming back in sheep's clothing. We are going state to state and working with citizens. groups and lawmakers in opposition to Real ID and SB 717. Some of the lawmakers quoted in the article are part of our Coalition. I was asked by our members to supply this response. We ask that each person visit our web-site at www.stoprealidcoalition.com for facts versus an overview that lacks a great deal of information and would lead readers to make wrong assumptions. Thank you

    Mark Lerner
    co-founder Stop Real ID Act Coalition

  • LifeStrategies||

    It's good to get real information, and yet today's time pressures mean not all authors have the time to do an exhaustive analysis...

    It's against the administration ignoring the finding of
    the House of Representatives' Health, Education, and Welfare Advisory Committee which rejected a national ID system on the grounds that it "would enhance the likelihood of arbitrary or uncontrolled linkage of records about people."

    So you both seem to be on the same side...

  • drudge||

    "Not unless someone invented silent explosives, sunshine." ???


    wake up dumbass

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