While driver’s licenses and birth certificates remain a tool sought by terrorists to support jihad in the United States, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is still pushing for repeal of driver’s license and birth certificate standards supported by 9/11 Commission recommendations. Ironically, Secretary Napolitano continues to assail the REAL ID Act’s standards despite new statistics – still held tightly within DHS – showing that 41 states, plus D.C., have embraced REAL ID implementation even without DHS support or new monies.

Terrorists Still Seek Driver’s Licenses. On February 23, 2011, the FBI filed an extensive, detailed criminal complaint with a tremendous amount of forensic evidence indicating that a Saudi foreign student, Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, who entered the United States on a student visa, had done so for the sole purpose of using our educational and visa system to commit major terrorist acts. His targets included former President Bush’s home and dams and other key infrastructure, intending to use a variety of homemade car bombs assembled with knowledge gained in chemical engineering classrooms and chemicals and materials purchased here in the United States. What did Aldawsari intend to use in order to embed in the United States and avoid detection? Multiple state-issued driver’s licenses and a U.S. passport based on fake birth certificates, not a particularly dissimilar method to the 19 9/11 terrorists who had 30 state-issued IDs between them and also used fraud to game the driver’s license system. The Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari criminal complaint specifically mentions that his plan for jihad depended in part on well-known terrorist travel methodology.

Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari might have been successful but for his dogged determination to accumulate as much precursor chemicals as possible (for the explosives), for which Carolina Biological Supply rightly reported his purchases to law enforcement. The Aldawsari case shows that not much has changed in the world of terrorist travel since the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report and the supporting staff monograph, 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: driver’s licenses are still an important tool in the terrorists’ toolbox, whether a lone actor or a member of a larger organization. Aldawsari is a significant example of why it is important to prevent fake birth certificates and other lies about identity from being used to obtain legitimate state-issued driver’s licenses. It is important to remain vigilant about assuring that people are who they say they are. At its base, that is what the REAL ID Act is about: assuring that driver’s license applicants are who they say they are, from the sum-total of the identity documents they present as applicants.

REAL ID Implementation Embraced. Secretary Napolitano has again extended the deadline for states to comply with the minimum standards of REAL ID, to exactly the time frame she could be leaving office: January 2013. Ironically, however, the states have not paid much attention to Napolitano or to the fact that federal monies for REAL ID have all but dried up. Instead, the states are complying with REAL ID in numbers that exceed what I published in January 2011 in “REAL ID Implementation: Less Expensive, Doable, and Helpful in Reducing Fraud.”

According to internal, official government information which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not shared with Congress beyond the House and Senate appropriators, there are not only 11 states that have fulfilled the first 18 material compliance benchmarks as I reported in January, but another five that have submitted full compliance packages to the DHS, meaning they are asking DHS to certify that the state has met all the criteria for REAL ID, criteria that were not required to be completed even under the old deadline until December 1, 2014. Twelve more states have told DHS they are fully committed to meeting material compliance, but need more time, while another four states have comparable Enhanced Driver’s License programs that former DHS Secretary Chertoff stated were REAL ID-compliant.

Beyond these 32 states that have already met at least REAL ID material compliance, another 12 states have written and assured DHS that they are seeking to meet at least 15 of 18 of the material compliance standards. In total, of the 50 U.S. states and six territories, 44 (41 states and three territories) of them have given DHS the green light that they are on board and working toward REAL ID compliance. Of the remaining nine states and three territories, three of those states have laws banning the state from compliance yet two of them are meeting REAL ID standards without using the REAL ID name. All in all, that leaves only six states that appear to have little interest in REAL ID implementation.

Birth Certificate Standard Implementation. The 9/11 Commission also recommended minimum standards for birth certificates, for reasons made evident in the above excerpt from the Aldawsari criminal complaint. In February 2011, I updated birth record standardization implementation in “Update on Digitization of Vital Records.” The good news is that in the past month, Georgia and New York City have completed installation of the hardware and software necessary to support electronic vital records checks, and Vermont has begun the process (as shown in the updated map below). This means there are now 30 states online ready to perform birth certificate verification for other state DMVs and other users. If states want to shore up against attempts by terrorists such as Aldawsari, criminals, and illegal aliens, they should consider providing DMV connectivity as soon as practicable, even though it is not a strict requirement of REAL ID.

Congressional Annoyance. While the congressional disillusionment with the REAL ID Act that existed from 2005-2009 has now shifted with proof and value of REAL ID implementation, Secretary Napolitano has kept that implementation hidden from view and continued to seek the law’s repeal. She has now extended the compliance deadline of the REAL ID Act rule by 20 months, citing that, “[t]he inability of States to fully comply with the requirements of REAL ID by May 11, 2011, is the result of a number of factors, including diminished State budgets caused by the economic downturn and the uncertainty throughout much of the 111th Congress about Congressional action on the PASS ID Act.” Her statement, as shown in the numbers being held by her own department, implies noncompliance, rather than the truth: “uncertainty” was created by her push for repeal of REAL ID.

Congress has begun to show its annoyance with the secretary’s unwillingness to implement REAL ID as the federal law she has a duty to uphold. No longer does Secretary Napolitano’s PASS ID have champions in either chamber. Moreover, the quiet that permeated both chambers while PASS ID was being considered in 2009 has turned into outright support for REAL ID, especially since publication of facts pertaining to the current status of implementation.

On March 28, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) put out a searing press release regarding a letter jointly sent to Secretary Napolitano criticizing the delay in REAL ID implementation by 20 months and yet another call for REAL ID repeal by the secretary. Rep. Smith stated: “To undermine the REAL ID law is to make it easier for terrorists to operate in the U.S. The Administration should stop trying to undercut REAL ID and instead support the full implementation of this critical national security law.”

On March 2, 2011, the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Homeland Security, held a hearing on the Department of Homeland Security’s Fiscal year 2012 budget request. Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) noted that the “The Department of Homeland Security cannot operate in a world as it would like to be. Instead it must follow the law as it is written. This assertion not only applies to the budget realities I have just outlined but also to areas where this administration has been reluctant to fully engage, such as immigration enforcement, REAL ID, and the biometric exit solution for US-VISIT. These are mandates the Department of Homeland Security must plan for, budget for, and perform.”

Aderholt’s comments were preceded by a February 28, 2011, letter to Secretary Napolitano sent by Republican leadership with jurisdiction over REAL ID implementation, stating that “[r]ather than usurping Congress’s authority in writing policy, DHS should commit to the law and fully support implementation.” The letter was signed by House Judiciary Committee leadership, former Chairman and REAL ID author Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and Chairman of House Judiciary Lamar Smith (R-Texas), as well as Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).

This piece was originally posted on the Center for Immigration Studies blog.

Janice Kephart writes on border and identity security and programs, especially as they pertain to terrorist travel, as well as leadership and organizational issues at DHS. Kephart is founder of the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association (SIBA). Read More