Stewart Baker: Light on Security and History

One would be right to worry about Stewart Baker, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for policy. He’s as smart and cagey as they come, but for all his years at DHS, his security thinking seems not yet to have matured. At the same time, his recollection of the REAL ID Act is showing signs of somewhat advanced age. Let’s walk through some things with our friend Stewart:

Writing on the DHS blog in support of our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, he intones about the importance of driver’s licenses to national security. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we learned this the hard way. Twice.”:

First, in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh was able to create a fake South Dakota license with ease; all it took was a manual typewriter and a kitchen iron. He used the license to rent a Ryder truck in Oklahoma and destroy the Murrah Federal Building. Then, on September 11, 2001, eighteen of the nineteen hijackers carried government-issued IDs – mostly state driver’s licenses, many obtained fraudulently.

What, actually, did we learn from these stories?

I researched McVeigh’s attack on the Murrah building for my book Identity Crisis, concluding that he and Terry Nichols used false names inconsistently and with little purpose or effect. McVeigh used his true name to register at a motel for the nights directly preceding the bombing. This certainly clouds the theory that insufficient identification security had a relationship to the success of the bombing.

No, McVeigh and Nichols used surprise, not anonymity, to carry out their attack. They were playing cat and mouse with a cat that wasn’t looking for them. Once they struck, they were easily found.

The 9/11 story similarly fails to create a foundation for REAL ID or more secure identification. The 9/11 Commission noted that the 9/11 terrorists acquired U.S. identity documents — “some by fraud” — but it made no effort to establish how possession of identity documents, whether fraudulently or lawfully gotten, was proximate to the success of the 9/11 attacks.

A monograph on terrorist travel issued by 9/11 Commission staff without the endorsement of the Commission documented many issues related to travel documents and identity cards, but it too failed to establish how weakness in our identity systems were proximate to the 9/11 attacks, or — more importantly — how more secure identification systems would foreclose future acts of terrorism. Stewart Baker hasn’t establish this either. Nobody ever has. Identity security was a minor recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and not a well-supported one.

But Baker characterizes it thusly:

The 9/11 Commission recognized that it’s too easy to get false identification in the U.S. That’s why the Commission determined that “(s)ecure identification should begin in the United States. The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” Congress responded with the REAL ID Act of 2005, which requires the federal government to set standards for the identifications it accepts.

Now poor Stewart has fallen down a different way. Actually, Congress responded to the 9/11 Commission report with Section 7212 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458). It created a committee of interested parties to assess how to strengthen the security of state ID cards and licenses. The REAL ID Act repealed section 7212 and disbanded that committee. Legislation to restore it is pending in both the Senate and the House.

Baker plans to write more on the REAL ID Act in the coming days. His purpose, of course, is to menace the states whose leaders may refuse to accept an extension of the compliance deadline under the Act. These states may force a showdown with DHS and Congress over this sprawling albatross of an unfunded surveillance mandate.

Not a single state in the entire country will comply with REAL ID by the statutory deadline of May 11, but DHS hopes that getting all states to agree to take deadline extensions can be counted as a REAL ID win. I suppose logic like that makes Stu Baker’s security chops and memory look pretty good! It’s a close call, but at this point I think it’s premature to take his driver’s license away.