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Under intense pressure from states, the Homeland Security Department today agreed to allow delays in a controversial new driver's license law. The Real ID program is supposed to make driver's licenses around the country more secure, but states have complained that it's almost impossible for them to meet a May, 2008 deadline.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Real ID has been controversial ever since it was enacted by Congress two years ago. Civil liberties groups warned that it amounts to a national ID card, and states complain that the requirements are extremely costly and burdensome. Some states have even passed legislation saying they won't participate.
Today, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced proposed regulations for Real ID that he said should meet many of the concerns. He descried the program as involving simple, common sense steps. It will require that all those applying for a new or renewed driver's license show documents that prove five things.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Who they are, what their date of birth is, what your legal status is in the United States, their Social Security number and their address. None of this stuff is top-secret stuff.
FESSLER: Chertoff said states will then have to scan those documents into databases and verify that they're valid. They'll also have to make sure the drivers license itself is hard to counterfeit, and that individuals aren't licensed in other states. It's these measures that states say are almost impossible to put in place by next year and that this was made even more difficult by the administration's delay in issuing guidelines. Chertoff acknowledged the concerns.
CHERTOFF: We know that a number of states are going to have difficulty meeting the deadline, and in part that's due to the fact that this rule has taken a quite a bit of time to get out.
FESSLER: So he said states will now be allowed to request a 19-month extension until the end of 2009. Chertoff also said the administration will allow states to tap into some state Homeland Security funds to help alleviate the estimated $11 billion cost. His announcement came as the U.S. Senate was considering an amendment to delay the law, an amendment that look likely to pass.
Critics of Real ID welcomed Chertoff's announcement but made it clear they see it as only the first step, that there will be pressure for further delays and changes. Senator John Sununu is a Republican from New Hampshire.
JOHN SUNUNU: This opens a window now, two-year delay in implementation, that will potentially minimize or reduce the costs, brings the states back to the table and privacy advocates and technologists back to the table to look at this proposed regulations and find ways to make them work better.
FESSLER: Senators say they're especially concerned about finding more money to pay for the program. State groups have other problems. David Quam is director of federal relations for the National Governors Association. He notes that states might be able to get an extension for when they have to start issuing new licenses to all drivers, but not for when they have to finish.
DAVID QUAM: If you have an extra two years before you have to comply, but still have to meet that goal in five years, your window shrinks from moving everybody back to your DMV. That's going to increase costs and increase demands from the systems.
FESSLER: And Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union says his group is deeply disappointed with the new regulations, because they don't address privacy concerns. He says the law should be repealed.
TIM SPARAPANI: Look, the Real ID Act is entirely flawed. If the states themselves can't achieve it, privacy and civil liberties people are going crazy over it, better to wipe that bad statute off the books and start over, get everybody in the same room.
FESSLER: Chertoff hopes those discussions could be done without further delay in the law. He noted that the 9/11 hijackers used fraudulent IDs to help carry out their attacks. He said, quote, "shame on us if the country doesn't do something soon."
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.