Residents of states that don't comply with a new federal ID law by next week could face extra scrutiny when they try to board an airplane. Three states — South Carolina, Maine and New Hampshire — have yet to comply or seek an extension in the deadline for meeting secure driver's license standards. But it looks like the standoff could be resolved soon — at least temporarily.
There's a bit of Alice in Wonderland in the debate over deadlines in the Real ID program. The Department of Homeland Security says residents of states that don't get an extension by Monday will have problems when they try to use their driver's licenses. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been pressing the point since early this year.
"Let me be clear about this. This is a statute. We are required after May to no longer accept these licenses at airports. We're going to obey the law. I'm not a bluffer," he said.
But some states have been prepared to call that bluff. They complain that the new driver's license requirements are unnecessary and too costly. Several have passed laws banning participation in the program, including seeking an extension.
But on Friday, Homeland Security and the state of Montana — one of the strongest Real ID opponents — reached what can only be called a creative solution. The state got an extension — without requesting one.
"We're not in the business of asking states to say Uncle. We're in the business of trying to improve drivers' license security," said Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker.
Montana's attorney general Mike McGrath sent Homeland Security a letter listing everything the state has done to make driver's licenses more secure, while reiterating its refusal to implement Real ID.
Baker replied that because Montana is doing so much, he would consider the letter a request for an extension and that the extension was granted.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said DHS blinked. Baker says otherwise.
"We got what we were most interested in, which is a binding assurance from the state that they were going to improve the security of their driver's license. They said that it was a coincidence, and we're prepared to let them say that. We're only interested in what they're doing," Baker said.
But it was an opening other states were looking for.
"We were all a little pretty surprised last week when suddenly Montana was granted a waiver," said Matt Dunlap, Maine's secretary of state. "And after Gov. Schweitzer's comments on your network, we were pretty impressed. We hadn't heard rhetoric like that in many a year."
Montana's governor told NPR's All Things Considered this month that Real ID was a harebrained scheme, and that sometimes it's best to tell the federal government to "go to hell."
So on Tuesday, inspired by Montana, Maine sent its own letter to Homeland Security — in the hope that it, too, will get an extension without asking for one. New Hampshire did the same, and South Carolina is considering it.
Maine's Dunlap says everyone wants more secure driver's licenses, but there are questions about what some see as a national ID card.
"I think what Mainers are concerned about is their privacy. You just had the high profile incident at the State Department with people peeking into presidential candidates' passport records. And this is what I've heard right down the line, is that you're going to have the ability of some unknown official, in an unknown place for an unknown reason looking at your records," Dunlap said.
Homeland Security officials vehemently deny that's the case, but they've been negotiating with the states and have made some adjustments in the program.
Chertoff is adamant that Real ID is needed to prevent criminals and terrorists from using fake driver's licenses to cause harm.
Several states say they still won't participate. Montana's McGrath says his state plans to do what it intended all along.
"The fact is, our driver's licenses are secure, and we're doing a number of things. We don't need the federal government to tell us how to do this," he said.
But that's bound to be a topic for more debate. States now face a new deadline for Real ID — December 2009.