Rant: ID Card Trick

Can we count on the DMV to foil terrorists?


Ideally, the debate about national ID cards should have happened before Congress approved them. But better late than never.

The Real ID Act–which was slipped into a bill appropriating money for U.S. troops in Iraq, assuring its passage in May with few questions asked–requires states to issue machine-readable, biometrically encoded driver's licenses meeting federal standards that specify who gets them, what information they contain, and what documents must be presented to qualify for them. Only these IDs will be accepted for purposes such as traveling by plane or train, opening a bank account, starting a new job, using government services, and collecting Social Security benefits.

The act's critics complain that it violates principles of federalism; creates a nationwide database that will facilitate identity theft and tracking of innocent people by public- and private-sector snoops; makes the roads more dangerous by denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants; endangers people who for security reasons do not want their home addresses on their driver's licenses; and turns the U.S. into the sort of country where the authorities routinely demand your identity papers.

The law's supporters–who insist, with straight faces, that it does not really create a national ID because the cards will still carry the names of individual states–say it will protect us from terrorists. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that terrorists won't be able to forge the ID cards and are not motivated enough to become legal U.S. residents, thereby obtaining the cards fair and square. The system still depends on employees at state motor vehicle departments to verify legal residency, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers, requiring them to know which (possibly forged) supporting documents are acceptable.

Given my recent experience with the U.S. State Department, which should know a thing or two about distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens, I'm not optimistic about the ability of DMV bureaucrats with less training and experience to solve this paperwork puzzle.

In March, with an eye toward a trip to Israel in late June, my wife and I filled out a passport application for our daughter Mei, whom we adopted in China last summer. In late April, we received a letter from C. Pamela Holliday, regional director at the Washington, D.C., passport office, asking for Mei's certificate of citizenship. Holliday said that if we did not have the certificate of citizenship–which we didn't, since we had sent it to the passport office–we could send a translation of the Chinese adoption decree, another document we had already submitted.

After a couple weeks of calling the State Department's passport help line, staffed by occasionally sympathetic but generally clueless people who kept assuring me that I would hear from the D.C. passport office within 48 hours, I visited the post office where we had submitted the passport application. The passport agent at the post office called the passport office in D.C. and was informed that what they really needed was our "second adoption decree." When I told her we have just one, she suggested I go to the D.C. office.

After a 90-minute wait, a "supervisor" (a.k.a. "officious prick") at the D.C. office said that "upon review" it turned out Mei's file was complete and she could get a passport after all. So why did they send the letter? He didn't know. Why did they specifically ask for Mei's certificate of citizenship, leading us to believe they had lost this vitally important document, when they had it all the time? He didn't know. He did not admit there had been an error, let alone apologize.

Multiply the opportunities for such screwups by a few hundred million, and you'll get a sense of the bureaucratic hassles that will accompany implementation of the Real ID Act. And if the government can't reliably distinguish those who should get ID from those who shouldn't, how can we believe it will be worth the trouble?