Identifying Trouble

Fake driver’s licenses have been around almost as long as cars have. In the seemingly safer world of a few decades ago, most of them were forged by teenagers trying to get into a bar or see an R-rated movie.

But the world we live in isn’t so safe anymore; we can’t just dismiss the manufacture of fraudulent driver’s licenses and other forms of identification -- such as Social Security cards -- as some teenage lark. Increasingly, as testimony before the Senate Finance Committee demonstrated just last week, terrorists and other major criminals are using these forged documents to violate immigration laws, launder money, and commit fraud. In the case of terrorism, obtaining a driver’s license is among the first steps in helping terrorists blend into the U.S. as part of sleeper cells.

A recent undercover investigation requested by Congress demonstrated serious shortcomings in our ability to combat these crimes, including problems right here in Arizona.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, sent agents to Department of Motor Vehicles offices in eight states (including Arizona) to request a driver’s license. They provided DMV employees with fraudulent documents, such as a birth certificate or out-of-state license, to test whether any employees refused to accept them. In every single instance, even in cases where employees questioned the validity of some of the documents, the driver’s license was granted. Just as alarming, other fraudulent documents were successfully used by the GAO to gain entry into secured federal buildings in Atlanta and to enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

A convicted terrorist, who was part of a sleeper cell in Michigan, told our Committee that it was “easy” to buy a fake U.S. passport, obtain a fraudulent Social Security card, and get hold of technology (such as ink and specially-designed paper) to forge driver’s licenses and other forms of identification. Among other activities, his associates used such documents to open bank accounts and create phony identities for terrorists posing as American citizens.

Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, in his testimony before the Committee, acknowledged that document fraud is a serious and long-term problem that state and federal governments must address. He added that laws awarding driver’s licenses to illegal aliens recently passed in California and being considered in other states “will place a greater burden and more difficulty on our inspectors at the border” since driver’s licenses are often used to establish citizenship when people are returning to the U.S. from countries that do not require a passport to visit, such as Mexico and Canada.

It’s clear that, on both the federal and state levels, we need to better protect the security of these important identification documents. On the federal side, Congress has passed legislation that Senators Dianne Feinstein, Ted Kennedy, Sam Brownback, and I authored to require fraud-resistant identifiers to be on all travel documents by October 2004. We also required that scanners be installed at all ports of entry to read these documents and ensure their validity. The administration is in the process of implementing these changes, though far too slowly in some cases.

States clearly have to do a better job, too, especially in tightening up their procedures in issuing driver’s licenses. Just think of what a driver’s license allows an ordinary citizen to do: rent a car or truck, board an airplane, or pass through security checkpoints. It is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of identification used in the United States. That’s why criminals and terrorists are working so hard to obtain them.

Among the recommendations offered to states by the GAO: better education of DMV employees to spot document fraud; implementation of procedures in addition to visual inspections to ensure document validity; ensuring that out-of-state driver’s licenses are authenticated from the state of issue; and referring those with questionable documents to appropriate law-enforcement officials.

We are all proud of America’s openness, but our free society can also make us more vulnerable. It’s very important, then, that we do all we can to see to it that laws protecting our security are followed, and that we don’t make it even easier for our system to be abused and infiltrated.

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