The REAL ID Act may be on the verge of receiving its final coffin nails. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is pushing a replacement bill that poses many of the same threats as REAL ID. The history of REAL ID should inspire friends of freedom to once again vigorously oppose any and every federal grab for their personal information.
The feds had sought legislation to create national ID cards in the 1990s but were rebuffed by a Republican Congress. But, after 9/11, “everything changed” — at least in Washington. Regardless of the reasons why the CIA and FBI failed to stop the hijackers, the solution was far more snooping and the potential creation of hundreds of millions of dossiers on American citizens. Almost overnight, it became widely accepted that the government must have unlimited powers to search anywhere and everywhere for enemies of freedom. The worse the government’s failure to protect Americans, the further it permitted itself to intrude.
There was scant opposition when the House of Representatives initially considered REAL ID in early 2005. The Senate unanimously approved the bill, attached as a rider to an appropriations bill for military spending. Rep. Ron Paul was practically the lone Republican sounding the alarm. At the time the bill passed, he warned, “This REAL ID Act establishes a massive, centrally-coordinated database of highly personal information about American citizens: at a minimum their name, date of birth, place of residence, Social Security number, and physical characteristics.”
REAL ID provided a blank check for the feds to demand more information at any time in the future. The new law granted “open-ended authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security to require biometric information on IDs in the future. This means your harmless looking driver’s license could contain a retina scan, fingerprints, DNA information, or radio frequency technology,” as congressman Paul warned.
Back in 2005, it was not fashionable in Washington to be afraid of federal surveillance. Luckily, in the subsequent years, civil liberties activists have raised Cain around the nation. More than half of all the state legislatures have passed resolutions or laws restricting REAL ID’s bite in their state. But in order to understand what the feds may try next, it is important to consider how REAL ID was sold, how it was expanded, and why it remains a threat.
At the time REAL ID was being promoted, advocates of federal surveillance claimed that national identification cards were necessary to make Americans safe. In reality, national ID cards would do far more to control than to protect Americans. Savvy foreign terrorists could find ways to evade the requirements for such cards — the same way that they easily evaded ludicrous airport security systems on September 11, 2001.
REAL ID was intended to greatly increase federal levers over the movement and lives of Americans. In 2008, Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff announced that Americans who lived in states who had not revised their drivers licenses to meet REAL ID mandates could be banned from boarding an airplane within the United States. Since the Transportation Security Administration was part of Chertoff’s fiefdom, he could snap his fingers and the TSA would block anyone who did not present the proper papers from catching a flight. (Chertoff’s attempt to bludgeon state legislatures into submission backfired).
James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website.