2005 May 08 Sunday
The New York Times Makes No Sense On Real ID Law

The editors of the New York Times make an intellectually incoherent argument against the Real ID proposal which is heading into law.

Attaching a bad bill to a vital one is a sneaky business, making it nearly impossible for thoughtful members of Congress to vote against it. In this case, in order to provide financial support to American troops doing dangerous service abroad, lawmakers are stuck also supporting a plan that eliminates the chance of doing anything serious about identity security. It also puts a new burden on the states and potentially subverts the real purpose of driver's licenses: safe drivers.

By implication the New York Times would have us believe that airport security drivers license checks are either a generally non-legitimate use of drivers licenses or a purpose that is somehow harmful to the "real" purpose of drivers licenses..

Well, if driver's licenses are just for making drivers safe would the New York Times be content to ban their use for other purposes? Read the last sentence. Sounds like the Times is uncomfortable about having state government employees verify that a driver's license applicant is really who they purport to be.

Once this new driver's license requirement becomes law, licenses from states that do not screen for immigration status will not be accepted as federal identification for things like boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings. Many state officials are understandably concerned about the added cost of this new license because so far there is no federal money attached to Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill. Security-conscious Americans will also be concerned about making state motor vehicle department employees the ultimate authorities on identity security.

Why should the Times complain if some lax states do not want to make their licenses reliable enough to be used for other ID purposes? After all, the Grey Lady says the real purpose of driver's licenses is just to have safe drivers.

Bars use drivers licenses to verify age. Stores and banks use drivers licenses to verify identity. So do airports and many other establishments. What is Congress saying? That a drivers license can not be used in certain circumstances by agents of the federal government to verify identity unless the issuing state for a drivers license adheres to strict standards in issuing that form of ID. In a sense, the federal government is regulating itself. It is unwilling to use the drivers license as a de facto national ID unless each state wants to meet certain standards for issuance.

The Feds are not making any state meet that standard. A state can choose to issue drivers licenses that can not be confidently used for other purposes. In that case the citizens of that state would be free to pursue getting passports or some other form of ID that the feds would accept as more rigorously authenticated when issued. Why should the Grey Lady object to this? If states don't want their drivers licenses to be general IDs they are free to only issue drivers licenses that are not useful for general purposes.

What appears to irk the Grey Lady is that the feds are not allowing states to issue two kinds of drivers licenses: One for illegals and another for everyone else. But the editors of that paper try to dance around that point and end up taking contradictory positions. They simultaneously oppose treating drivers licenses as general purpose IDs and at the same time oppose federal efforts to impose standards on when they will accept drivers licenses as general purpose IDs. Well, by the Grey Lady's logic if the feds simply refused to accept drivers licenses at all that would in some sense protect the purity of purpose of drivers licenses as being solely for safe driving. Yet the Grey Lady would no doubt object to a ban on the use of drivers licenses for passage through federally controlled facilities.

My guess is that the NY Times editors are really opposed to Real ID because they oppose tougher immigration law enforcement and their desire to hide their real motive has resulted in an incoherent argument. Their attempt to make an argument for states rights isn't even appropriate in the case of illegal immigrants because immigration is a federal issue and state granting of drivers licenses to illegals undermines federal immigration law enforcement.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 May 08 09:25 PM  Immigration Law Enforcement

Stephen said at May 8, 2005 11:32 PM:
By implication New York Times would have us believe that when airport security people want to see our drivers licenses to check who we are that these security people making drivers licenses serve either a generally non-legitimate purpose or a purpose that is somehow harmful to the "real" purpose of drivers licenses..

A question came to my mind when reading Randall's para - why does the security guy need to check a passenger's identity?? Think about it - the real security challenge is identifying passengers who are carrying the equipment needed to blow up the plane, and the particular name on a driver's license is 'orthogonal' to that problem.

Even if someone could come up with a significant flight safety reason for knowing a passenger's identity, it seems to me that the driver license based method wouldn't work anyway. For instance, a potential terrorist can by-pass it by simply saying that s/he doesn't have a driver's license. If that happens, what's the security guy going to do? Right, he'll ask for another form of ID - anything will do. How about children, must they also have a driver's license? How about a 90yr old? How about the blind?

Also, how much of a deterrent is it for a terrorist to have to produce a legitimate driver's license? If I'm going to blow myself and 200 others to hell, I'm not sure I'd be deterred because I had to use my own name to do it.

I suppose what I'm saying is that a driver's license doesn't tell you anything about whether a person intends to blow up a plane.

I suspect the whole ID push is a case of "We need to be seen to be doing something, this is something, so lets do it." A classic case of measuring success by outputs rather than outcomes.

Daveg said at May 9, 2005 6:55 AM:


Knowing who someone is is critical to any security program. If you gather intellegence about "known terrorist suspects" you must know who is boarding the plane to compare against that list, no?

Also, an important purpose of the Real ID act is to ensure that driver's licenses are only valid for as long as the person is allowed to be in the country legally. So, a terrorist can't get into the country on a short term visa and then hand around to commit horrible acts.

Determining identity is the first step to almost any security effort. You should think a bit more about it.

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2005 7:24 AM:


No, intent is very important to gauge. Consider the 9/11 hijackers. They carried legal things on board. If we'd known who they were we could have stoppped them.

Also, are you aware of the results of audits of airport security even today? Attempts to carry banned items on board often succeed. I saw a bunch of US Senators in some subcommittee hearing talking to Department of Homeland Security undersecretaries about this. Even the higher pay of TSA workers as compared to the old minimum wage private inspectors is not enough to catch everything. Maybe nothing short of Israeli-style tear-everything-apart and lots of intense questioning will catch would-be hijackers and bombers.

Look at Richard Reid. His shoe bomb wasn't detected by any scanning equipment. Maybe scanning equipment could be developed that would detect his bomb. But we don't have it now. Granted, he wasn't on any terrorist watch list. But some of the guys who'd carry out attacks are on watch lists.

Terrorist threat aside, drivers licenses are already de facto national IDs and this has many consequencse. A state that has lax procedures for handing out driver's licenses is basically facilitating criminal activity of different kinds.

Daveg said at May 9, 2005 10:14 AM:

Not that this crime would have been stopped for sure by the Real ID Act, but it would have made staying in the country that much more difficult.

Rick Darby said at May 9, 2005 10:33 AM:

Randall, I think you're spot on that the real issue for the Times isn't standing up for states that don't want to meet federal standards for driver's licenses. What they're really concerned about is that driver's licenses might be harder for illegal immigrants to acquire.

That concern, in turn, reflects the strategy to promote open borders. Each time illegal immigrants are granted a right associated with citizenship -- driver's license, education for their children, welfare, voting without having to provide ID -- the closer that immigrant is to being a citizen in all but name. Then comes the killer argument: they're de facto citizens anyway, so how can you be so petty and narrow-minded as not to legally recognize them?

That's why each individual issue (like legitimate identification) must be seen as a battle in the larger war that open borders advocates have most assuredly declared against U.S. sovereignty.

John S Bolton said at May 9, 2005 11:36 AM:

The pretense that there is some right to privacy for the aggressor is a vicious one. The danger of government having a secure identity verification system, is as nothing in comparison to letting an aggressor operate freely. By such an argument, if it can be considered even a marginally rational one, it would be dangerous for the government to keep records on taxpayers or convicted criminals, by means of computers, or any other way. it is a transparent excuse for letting the sum of aggression increase; to have such a hypersensitivity selectively become aroused in just those cases where opennness to subhuman aggression is about to be constrained.

Stephen said at May 9, 2005 7:52 PM:
If you gather intellegence about "known terrorist suspects" you must know who is boarding the plane to compare against that list, no?

Daveg, a driving license doesn't give you any reliable info about the identity of the person handing you the license. Its not enough to say that a terrorist's driving license can be looked up on the no-fly list, after all any reasonably well prepared terrorist will have (a) invested in a colour flat tray printer and made himself a fake license; or, (b) murdered some look alike and taken his license.

The no-fly list is the worst kind of security system - it hinders the innocent and is easily by-passed by the motivated. Indeed, you don't even need to be motivated to kill people, because people who are motivated to save time & money can bypass the system by booking online and printing out their boarding pass at home...

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2005 8:15 PM:


Yes, there are multiple holes in the system. Each hole has to be closed. But you seem to be arguing (and correct me if I'm wrong) that there is no point in closing some holes as long as other holes remain open.

My take on the situation is that we need to close each hole. We need biometric data, automated authentication of IDs, and more obstacles in the way of people who want to get IDs that are fake or otherwise that they are not authorized to have.

But as for how smart the terrorists are: I think you are overestimating Al Qaeda. Most of the members of Al Qaeda are dim bulbs. Even identity checking systems with holes are better than no system at all.

Also, identity theft and the creation of false IDs for criminal purposes are growing problems independent of the terrorist threat and independent of the illegal immigration problem. We need better authentication of whether people are who they say they are.

Stephen said at May 9, 2005 8:59 PM:

Randall said:

No, intent is very important to gauge. Consider the 9/11 hijackers. They carried legal things on board. If we'd known who they were we could have stoppped them.

But would a driving licence have actually identified them as being on the list? If the no-fly list had existed pre-9/11, wouldn't they have just produces a fake license or maybe have stolen one a couple of hours earlier?

Also, are you aware of the results of audits of airport security even today? Attempts to carry banned items on board often succeed

I'm sure you'd agree that 'banned items' are a superset of terrorist items (I wonder whether many fingernail clipper incidents are included?). Also, the claim itself is evidence that the identity of a person isn't useful in stopping someone bringing a banned item aboard (even when used in conjunction with the appallingly over-inclusive no-fly list).

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2005 9:21 PM:


Pre-9/11 there was not a single list of terrorist suspects. I've read that within the federal government there were at least a dozen lists and perhaps more. The airport security people were extremely amateurish. They had access to little data about potential threats.

Yes, stolen and fake drivers licenses are a problem. But, again, as long as DMVs make little effort to verify identity before granting a license it is possible to go to a DMV office and get a real license under a fake name with your picture placed on it by the DMV and have a much more effective "fake" ID. Your license won't be placed on a list of stolen IDs. You can get your card checked by a cop and they could get verification from their DMV that, yes, that is a valid license and is not stolen or forged.

No, the set "banned items" is neither a superset or a subset of the set "terrorist items". The two sets have a partial overlap. This does not eliminate the value of the "banned items" list. Imagine there was no "banned items" list. Well, then terrorists could bring a machete or pistol or some C4 explosives on an airplane very easily.

Both ID checking and carry-on luggage checking are not 100% effective. Do you therefore argue for eliminating both measures? I can't figure out where you are going with your argument.

Stephen said at May 9, 2005 11:34 PM:

I'm simply saying that inspecting driving licenses isn't a terribly reliable method for determining whether or not a person should be allowed on a plane (just to reiterate my comment at the top of this thread).

alan truelove said at May 14, 2005 9:26 AM:

If you are worried about blind people/drivers licenses, States can and do issue ID cards in lieu.
Several States are now issuing 2nd class licenses (TENN,UT) marked "Not for Fed ID", and printed Portrait instead of Landscape.
This new laws will certainly make life more difficult for terrorists, & also chill illegal immigrants-which is the Times real objection.

laura said at May 19, 2005 9:34 AM:


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