CONCORD, N.H. – New Hampshire has suddenly become a battleground in the fight over privacy rights versus homeland security, with state legislators voting against strict new federal standards for issuing driver's licenses.
At issue is the federal Real ID Act, which is intended to keep terrorists from getting fake IDs. It requires states by 2008 to verify documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards and passports when people get driver's licenses. State databases with driver information and photos will also be linked.
Last month, the Republican-controlled New Hampshire House overwhelmingly voted to bar the state from participating in the program. A vote in the GOP-dominated Senate is expected in two weeks. Democratic Gov. John Lynch remains undecided.
The move has won backing from the American Civil Liberties Union as well as conservative privacy advocates and Christian fundamentalists.
"I think New Hampshire will set the dominoes falling in the states," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program of the ACLU, who testified for Kurk's bill at a recent Senate hearing alongside a member of the conservative Cato Institute. "Who's going to say, `The emperor has no clothes?' New Hampshire's in a good position to do that."
Legislation in other states would condemn Real ID, but Kurk's bill is the toughest legislation making real progress anywhere, Steinhardt said.
Republican state Rep. Neal Kurk, author of the bill against Real ID, gave a stirring speech during the debate.
"I don't believe the people of New Hampshire elected us to help the federal government create a national identification card," Kurk told the House. "We care more for our liberties than to meekly hand over to the federal government the potential to ennumerate, track, identify and eventually control."
A weekend rally featuring Real ID opponents in Nazi uniforms attracted lawmakers from both parties, and worried members of Congress dispatched a staff member from the House Judiciary Committee to meet one-on-one with state senators in advance of a committee vote Wednesday.
Supporters of Real ID say blocking it will isolate New Hampshire, requiring residents to get a passport if they want to board an airplane or enter a federal building. The state also would lose a $3 million federal grant to update drivers' license computers.
Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said Real ID closes loopholes that allowed a Sept. 11 terrorist with a six-month tourist visa to get driver's licenses in multiple states good for five years or longer.
He said it sprang from the Sept. 11 Commission's finding that "for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons."
"They use a driver's license or any other type of identity document as a breeder document and they start setting up bank accounts and credit card accounts," he said. "That's how they were able to live openly among us."
Many governors and some state motor vehicle directors oppose Real ID. Most state legislatures are waiting to see regulations for implementing it from the federal Department of Homeland Security before acting.
"It's not going to promote national security. It's not going to help us prevent illegal immigration. It's just going to help the government keep tabs on ordinary citizens," Kurk said. "Remember, the 9-11 terrorists were in this country legally and had legally obtained documents."
The cards also must be machine-readable, so they could incorporate a radio-frequency identification chip or a bar code. That irks privacy advocates like Katherine Albrecht of Nashua, co-author of "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID."
She worries the national database will be an irresistible target for identity thieves and corrupt motor vehicle workers.
"It's just a disaster waiting to happen from a security standpoint," she said. "It would actually expand the risk of terrorism."
The Rev. Irvin Baxter, the founder of Endtime Ministries of Garland, Texas, recently had Kurk on his radio show and featured Albrecht in his magazine. He objects to Real ID on religious grounds, saying it could evolve to represent the mark of the anti-Christ.
In a telephone interview, Baxter cited a prophecy in Revelations that "every person on Earth will be given a number or a mark, and without this they will not be able to buy or sell."