REAL ID and the Real Danger of Government

The Campaign for Liberty posted online an article I wrote today on the lessons of REAL ID.

Funny to think how, only a few years ago, opponents of REAL ID were tagged as paranoid….

Real ID: A Real Warning on the Danger of Government
By James Bovard

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).

If the feds had been upfront about claiming a prerogative to arbitrarily ban any American from air travel at the time the bill was initially considered, far more people would have protested before REAL ID became law. But this is typical of the “camel’s nose in the tent” style of surveillance.

REAL ID was also used to railroad through a vast expansion of the definition of terrorism. As Rep. Paul noted, the law “re-defines ‘terrorism’ in broad new terms that could well include members of firearms rights and anti-abortion groups, or other such groups as determined by whoever is in power at the time. There are no prohibitions against including such information in the database as information about a person’s exercise of First Amendment rights or about a person’s appearance on a registry of firearms owners.”

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) complained that REAL ID “defined the term ‘terrorist activity’ so broadly that it basically covers anyone who has ever used a firearm.” REAL ID’s expansion of the definition of terrorist activity is especially perilous considering the hostility that some congressmen have towards gun owners.

And the danger is compounded because some Homeland Security Department officials have already labeled individuals who invoke the Constitution or support candidates like Ron Paul as radicals and extremists. This past April, a Homeland Security report entitled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Environment Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” defined as “right wing extremism” groups and individuals who are “mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” Thus, anyone who firmly believes in the Tenth Amendment could be classified as a threat to public safety. Once the groundwork is laid, the feds could exploit REAL ID to block people to travel to political protests. (The federal No Fly list was exploited in a similar fashion in 2002 to block Wisconsin nuns from traveling to an antiwar protest in Washington).

Now, Obama’s Homeland Security chief, Janet Napolitano, is urging Congress to enact what is portrayed as “REAL ID-Lite” — the PASS Act (Providing for Additional Security in States’ Identification Act of 2009).

But this bill contains many of the same risks as the REAL ID. And Napolitano is promoting requiring state drivers’ licenses to contain RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips with unique numbers for each individual. Katherine Albrecht, author of the bestseller Spychips, warns that this scheme could make it easy for the government to identify anyone who attends a gun show or an antiwar rally. Albrecht asks: “What happens to all those people when a government operator carrying a reading device makes a circuit of the event? They could download all those unique ID numbers and link them.” And it would be a small step from this to putting all the names on watch lists.

But PASS ID sounds more innocuous than REAL ID. However, from another perspective, it sounds reminiscent of high school – when students had to get a hall pass from their teacher before being permitted to step out of the classroom.

Many REAL ID advocates insisted that there was no risk of the government using the new law as a launching pad to go further into people’s lives. But the experience with other federal surveillance efforts proves that things can get far more worse than even paranoids suspect. In the 1980s, when cell phones became popular, many people saw them as a way for people to enjoy a new freedom and mobility. But, in 1999, the Federal Communications Commission bowed to FBI demands and required that all new cellular telephones be de facto homing devices. Cell phones must now include components that allow law enforcement to determine the precise location of any caller using the device. As Electronic Design magazine noted, “Unlike the location feature being created for 911 emergency services, this capability will apply to all calls and users won’t be able to turn it off.”

There was no reason to pass Real ID, and there is no reason to enact a replacement after state legislatures shot REAL ID to pieces. Nothing has happened since 2005 to make the government more trustworthy or to make liberty less valuable. It is vital that we never permit our rulers to treat all Americans like criminal suspects all the time. The government’s incompetence at protecting Americans must not be converted into a political entitlement to destroy all privacy.

tagline: James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy (Palgrave, 2006), The Bush Betrayal (Palgrave, 2004), Terrorism and Tyranny (Palgrave, 2003), Freedom in Chains (St. Martin’s 1999), Lost Rights (St. Martin’s 1994), and other books. His website is at

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