by Robert OHarrow Jr.
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- State motor-vehicle officials plan to ask Congress today for up to $100 million to create a national identification system that would include high-tech driver's licenses and a network of tightly linked databases of driver information.
The appeal by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators represents the most concerted push for a national identification system since authorities determined that some Sept. 11 hijackers used false identities and obtained driver's licenses illegally.
Shortly after the attacks, association officials floated the idea of adopting cards containing fingerprints, computer chips or other unique identifiers to improve security, saying that driver's licenses have already become the "de facto national identification card."
Today, an association task force created to study the issue plans to release a report that calls on states to standardize their licensing procedures, improve their authentication of drivers and otherwise close gaps that might be used by terrorists and fraud artists.
The report also recommends closer scrutiny of license applications from foreign visitors, in part to prevent people with expired travel visas from maintaining valid driver's licenses.
Key to their initiative will be financial and legislative support from Congress and the states. Association officials estimate it will cost $70 million to $100 million to link all state databases, overhaul licensing procedures and switch to high-tech cards.
"The whole issue comes down to improving public safety, protecting national security and preventing identity fraud," said Jason King, an association spokesman. "It will take changes in federal legislation. It will take changes in state legislation, and it most certainly will require funding."
The group's proposals have fueled debate over national identification and the proper balance between civil liberties and security. In recent surveys, a majority of Americans expressed support for such cards as a way to improve security — a turnabout in sentiment from before Sept. 11.
While President Bush has said he does not think a card is necessary, officials at the Justice Department and at least one other government agency have begun working on a national standard for a system.
Civil-liberties activists believe such a system, even one created from a driver's license, would open the way to unwanted government scrutiny.
David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, urged people to oppose the association's initiative. He said this "type of system would be a radical departure for this country. ... It will be subject to abuse."
While the association acknowledges it could take years to fully implement such a system, the idea is gaining support in Congress. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is drafting legislation that would, among other things, create uniform standards for licensing and the cards. The proposed law might also require the use of biometric information, such as fingerprints, on the ID.