The state of South Carolina was among the first to openly rebel against a controversial Bush-era program known as Real ID, which called for tougher security features in driver’s licenses to prevent terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants from fraudulently obtaining identification. By November of 2009, the National Governors Association revealed that three-dozen states wouldn’t meet an end-of-the-year deadline to have the changes in place, and more than a dozen additionally had passed laws refusing to cooperate with Real ID, inspired in part by South Carolina’s defiance. Residents living in states that had not complied by the deadline would be prohibited from using their own driver’s licenses to board a commercial airplane or enter a federal building. States complained that the cost of implementing the Real ID Act was too burdensome. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center chimed in that the program amounted to a national identity card and excessive government intrusion. Further, systems for maintaining the IDs were to be standardized essentially making them a unified database of citizen profiles, which critics worried could make identity theft easier. The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, altered the debate dramatically when he sent a passionate and detailed letter to the former homeland security chief under George Bush, Michael Chertoff, attacking Real ID and arguing that it clashed with the country’s historic regard for personal liberties and privacy. Sanford added that creating the new licenses would be an unfunded federal mandate costing billions of dollars, much of it heaped upon the states, and said the original proposal itself was tucked inside an unrelated defense spending bill without a full debate from Congress. South Carolina refused even to ask the Department of Homeland Security to extend its deadline for following the new rules. “Our greatest homeland security is liberty and, yet, based on the history of civilizations, its biggest threat is found in a central government that is too powerful,” Sanford wrote. “Real ID upsets the balance of power between the federal government and the states by coercing the states into creating a national ID system for federal purposes.” The initial legislation restricted where citizens would need to present a Real ID, but Sanford warned “we have no assurances that at some point we won’t need a Real ID to open a bank account or purchase a gun.” Chertoff countered in his own letter that the contemporary measures for identity verification would make it more difficult for terrorists to evade watchlists. As for a national ID database, he also said that law enforcement already shared motor vehicle information around the country and Real ID merely built on structures that states had already created. “The states may regret it, but driver’s licenses have become de facto identity credentials for many purposes,” he wrote. “Real ID is not a way of expanding federal authority over the states; instead, Real ID simply says that the federal government should not accept state credentials unless they meet minimum security standards. That is not a federal regulation, it is federal self-protection.” Nonetheless, Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in the summer of 2009 requested that Congress scrap the program and replace it with one she called Pass ID that would heighten the security of driver’s licenses but give states greater control over how it was done. Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee answered with a new bill that month aimed at repealing Real ID and establishing a negotiated rulemaking process that permitted states to advise the Department of Homeland Security on better validation techniques while lessening the administrative headaches involved. It would also strip the requirement that all ID data and systems be consistently maintained, nixing the possibility of a national database. Sanford still expressed concern in a statement then that among other things Pass ID didn’t explicitly prohibit the use of radio frequency identification technology in driver’s licenses, or RFID, “which makes citizens susceptible to tracking by public and private entities, including hackers.” As the deadline for Real ID counted down at the end of 2009, Cohen’s H.R. 3471 had not moved quickly only making it beyond the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Our efforts to find out how South Carolina had used federal homeland security grants generally since Sept. 11 weren’t successful. We submitted a request under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act for computer records showing individual grant transactions, and authorities at the State Law Enforcement Division promised us in response that the materials were being compiled. But our letter was apparently lost when a new employee took over open-government responsibilities, and we were still waiting for the records at deadline.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz