WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge for the first time disclosed Thursday the Bush administration is studying ways to set national standards for driver's licenses that would assist in preventing fraudulent identification and expose aliens who overstayed their visas.
In a briefing for senators and the public arranged by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Ridge said the Office of Homeland Security is studying proposals by the National Governor's Association and other state groups to establish national standards for operator's permits. Ridge said the White House would consider legislation that would do that. "It may be helpful and appropriate at some time," Ridge said.
He said drivers' license expirations should also be linked to visa expirations.
Gordon Johndroe, Ridge's spokesman, told United Press International the Bush administration opposes a national identification card, but is working with several national associations including the governors and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators on ideas to make vehicle operators permits more standard.
One idea, he said, would be to issue resident aliens driver's permits linked to their visas. If an alien had a visa to visit the United States for six months, he or she would not be able to obtain a driver's permit that exceeded six months, Johndroe said. This would require, he said, a way for state departments of motor vehicles to be linked up with the Immigration and Naturalization Service or for states to call up INS records. He said that Homeland Security is also studying proposals to help state motor vehicle agencies link up.
On Wednesday, two Virginia congressmen, Democrat Jim Moran and Republican Tom Davis, submitted legislation to standardize state-issued driver's licenses across the United States, mandating the licenses carry a computer chip and incorporate some kind of unique identifier such as a fingerprint. The bill would also mandate that state bases be linked.
Moran assured reporters Wednesday the bill he introduced was crafted so the new drivers license databases would not be the basis of a national ID card.
"The main concern was a national identity card, " Moran said about the crafting of the bill. "This puts in protections against this becoming that sort of a database. It's confined within the state. It's not one single database that you would check against.
"These are state motor vehicle departments that will have these databases. This is not a national database," he said.
Moran said that the database would not be centralized.
"You would have the capability, now that this is digitized, to check every state database. But you have to check individually. This is not a national data file," said Moran.
"We're deliberately preventing that from occurring. What'd you want to do is to check every state where the person says they have a drivers license, where the person says they used to live. So those are the ones you check. I don't know that you really need to check all 50 states."
The Patriot Act, passed late last year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, appears to open a way for federal, state and local databases to be linked. The bill authorized $150 million for the "expansion of the Regional Information Sharing System" to "facilitate federal-state-local law enforcement response related to terrorist acts."
There appears to be growing support in Congress for such an expansion of access. On Tuesday at a Brookings Institution discussion of counter-terrorism actions, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said she thinks the United States needs what she called "smart card technology."
"I think we need increased use of biometrics so that we're sure a person using some form of identification is in fact the person on the identification. Obviously to get there and to rely on it, you need to know the person who is applying for the piece of identification is in fact who she says she is."
Harman, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and an acknowledged expert on counter-terrorism, said the identification needs to be connected to national databases to check on the background of driver's permit applicants.
"I think this issue must be looked at. We don't automatically have to call it a national ID card, that's a radioactive term, but we can certainly think about smart cards for essential functions, but we need the database to support that."
Asked by a member of the audience if she felt there was political support for this technology, Harman said, "I think most people are really there. Keep in mind that if we have a second wave of attacks. The folks who are raising objections will probably lose totally. The better idea is to do right now what I call rebalance" Harman suggested meeting increased security needs but with "very justifiable civil liberties and privacy guarantees. "Congress did a pretty good job on the Patriot Act," she said. "...We disallowed some of the things (Attorney General John) Ashcroft wanted because they were excessive. There still is a balancing mechanism which is the courts."
Later in discussing proposals for national information sharing, Harman said, "We already have in a sense a private sector based information sharing system -- credit card companies run it. And the good news is, they're capable of collecting a lot of information and popping out things using state-of-the art technology.''
She used the example that the credit card companies come to know a pattern of a customer's charges so well that they can identify when the card is being used fraudulently and query the customers. "That's a private based system that works well. There's also a private based system that's abused," she said. She did not elaborate on abuses.
(Dee Ann Divis is UPI Science and Technology Editor and Nicholas M. Horrock is UPI's Chief White House Correspondent)