Moribund National ID Act Revived by Spitzer-Chertoff Love Fest

By A. Kronstadt, The Shadow

Even here in sophisticated New York City where we are all supposed to know something and be savvy about politics, everyone thinks that there is a big difference between Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer and former Republican New York City Mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. Spitzer is certainly identified by most as a New York liberal, whether those doing the identifying like him for that or not. It is becoming more and more apparent, however that Spitzer’s credentials resemble more those of Giuliani than, say, Mario Cuomo, in the sense that Spitzer has a prosecutorial background and mentality and has little respect for the rights of the individual, except perhaps for the big real estate individuals of which he is also one. Spitzer’s role as a “stealth liberal” whose sleek profile is an illusion to disguise a greedy control junkie, is becoming apparent to more and more people, and this is one of the reasons why his popularity is in a tailspin, with a majority of Democrats admitting that they would like a chance to vote for somebody else. Spitzer’s role in promoting and indeed reviving the much-detested Real ID Act, legacy of the Republican Congress that was voted out of office in 2006, shows that his respect for privacy and the American tradition of individual liberties is nil.

With his prosecutorial and real estate background, Spitzer was already an insider in New York State and New York City government, and his victory in the 2006 gubernatorial race with 69% of the vote over little-known Republican John Faso was not the result of any upsurge in old-fashioned Democratic party liberalism or populism. Indeed, after less than a year in office, Spitzer is showing his right-wing prosecutorial side along with a scary ability to cloak his repressive intentions with liberal rhetoric. Spitzer’s plan to “grant driver’s licences to illegal aliens” enabled the right-wing press to skewer him as a wild-eyed liberal, but a careful examination of that controversy reveals the Democratic governor as one of the few enablers that the Bush Administration can count on in its effort to impose a national ID card on the US.

After eight years of Republican misrule in Albany, many here in New York City, who were the biggest victims of the anti-tenant and anti-poor policies of Gov. George Pataki and right-wing, upstate politicians led by State Senate Speaker Joe Bruno, welcomed the victory of Democrat Eliot Spitzer in 2006. Spitzer rose through the prosecutorial ranks, making a name for himself at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with his probes into mafia control of the garment district, and later as New York State Attorney General, where he spearheaded major probes into Wall Street corruption and earned a reputation as a protector of the American investor. Spitzer is the son of real estate developer Bernard Spitzer, whose fortune has been estimated at upward of $500 million and who is the landlord of several Manhattan high rises including the Corinthian on East 38th Street, as well as the futuristic 200 Central Park South and numerous properties on Madison Avenue. Eliot Spitzer financed his own campaign for Attorney General in 1998 to the tune of $9 million.

Spitzer has demonstrated a tight relationship with Manhattan real estate developers, in particular Larry Silverstein, who acquired a 99-year lease on the buildings and land of the World Trade Center on July 24, 2001. When the buildings were destroyed just a couple of weeks later, Silverstein became embroiled in litigation with his insurers, who insisted that the impact of the planes comprised only one incident, entitling Silverstein to a $3.55 billion payout. Silverstein contended that the attack constituted two separate incidents, entitling him to 7.1 billion dollars. As the case progressed in 2003, Spitzer took time from his busy schedule as NY State Attorney General to file an amicus curiae brief with the 2nd Circuit Court backing the claims of his fellow real estate mogul, who was eventually awarded 4.5 billion dollars in insurance payments in a federal court ruling. (Silverstein is also reported to have hired a former Spitzer advisor, Roberto Ramirez, as his personal lobbyist and pipeline to the governor.)

The ID card controversy began on Sept. 21, 2007, when Spitzer declared that he would implement by executive order a policy whereby the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants living in New York State would be able to obtain valid driver’s licenses. Spitzer justified the measure as promoting road safety by reducing the number of unlicensed drivers. As the governor phrased it “The DMV is not the INS,” referring, respectively, to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service—now folded into the Homeland Security Department.

Spitzer was immediately accused of having failed to consult either Homeland Security or the County Clerks charged with administering driver’s licenses in their localities. Spitzer counted on the support of immigrants rights advocates and Latino elected officials such as State Senator Ruben Diaz, who were early supporters of the license plan. Even Republican kingpin Joe Bruno himself, at first, rode the bandwagon. Rapidly, however, an upstate and suburban backlash sent Spitzer waffling. He consulted with his long-time friend and collaborator in hunting down mafia dons: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Chertoff had warned Spitzer that his department was about to come out against the governor’s initial, more nebulous plan to grant driver’s licenses irrespective of immigration status. Spitzer and Chertoff held a joint press conference on Oct. 27 at which they announced their Memorandum of Agreement, in which the Department of Homeland Security would consent to a form of Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status—in the context of New York State’s compliance with the Federal Real ID Act. A system of three “tiers” of driver’s license would be created, the upper two of which would be compliant with the requirements of Real ID. Let us restate the sinister provisions of the Real ID Act, which was passed by the Republican-dominated Congress in 2005, tacked onto a military appropriations bill, with no debate:

1. It mandates that all states meet certain minimum requirements for the information that needs to be included in driver’s licenses and state ID cards, including: requirement for “biometric parameters,” understood to mean fingerprints from at least two of the person’s digits.

2. It standardizes the documentation that states must require from applicants for such cards, including proof of a real address.

3. It calls for linking of all state ID information to a national database and to similar databases in Canada and Mexico.

4. It demands that all state-issued ID cards conform to a common machine-readable technology based on magnetic strips or RFID proximity card reading technology.

5. It includes a hodgepodge of other sinister, authoritarian provisions, including a provision nullifying state laws that interfere with the building of the border fence between the US and Mexico and another allowing the Department of Homeland Security to determine at will the legal meaning of the word “terrorist.”

The Real ID Act does not precisely mandate that every citizen needs to carry identification papers as in Russia, China, or apartheid-era South Africa, but it bars, for all intents and purposes, persons refusing to carry an ID card featuring the requirements described above from boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings, or from carrying out numerous other official activities that might be essential to people’s lives.

The Real ID Act attempts to mandate a national ID card at the expense of the individual states, since the bill (originally HR 418, passed as part of HR 1268) does not include any federal funding. Seventeen states have already passed legislation distancing themselves in various ways from the provisions of Real ID, ranging from requiring federal funding as a condition for implementation to outright refusal to implement the Act or calling upon Congress to repeal it. But Eliot Spitzer is by no means a member of the broad coalition of left and right that has formed in opposition to this affront to American individualism. Indeed, he has been one of the few state elected officials nationwide to embrace the Real ID Act (comprising a total of ten states that have made any commitment to the act), and to assert that his state is capable of funding this “unfunded mandate.” At his Oct. 27 press conference with Chertoff, Spitzer stated:

“We can implement—and the Secretary has indicated that we will already be in substantial compliance, based upon what we already do and what we already intend to do. So I think other states will look at this and say, the cost issues can be addressed, and it is, as the Secretary said, in that context, good policy, from a security perspective.”

At that press conference, Spitzer moved off of his initial position that there should be equal access to licenses for all state residents, switching to a position forged in consultation with Chertoff whereby three “tiers” of license would be available. According to the Spitzer/Chertoff Memorandum of Agreement signed at the end of October, the highest and most expensive tier would be simultaneously compliant with the Real ID Act and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a treaty that includes Canada and Mexico. This version of the new driver’s license would include the RFID chip and biometric parameters (e.g., fingerprint or face-recognition technology) that are included among the maximum goals of Real ID.

The RFID chip is touted as making it very easy for upstaters to cross the Canadian border via a remote “Easy Pass” type of system that can be read automatically from a toll booth. It would be a particular convenience for residents of New York’s northernmost upstate counties to be able to travel across the Canadian border easily, since commerce with Canada is vital in that part of the state. The only other ID that would otherwise be acceptable for travel into Canada or Mexico under the post-9-11 border regulations would be a passport, which is much more expensive.

There would also be a middle tier of license that would comprise regular driver’s licenses (or non-driver ID that the state Department of Motor Vehicles also issues). These would be technically simpler, but would still require proof of citizenship, several prior forms of ID to establish name and address, and possibly the biometric parameters. This ordinary type of license would be acceptable as ID for boarding airplanes and entering federal buildings, as well as for driving.

The third and lowest tier would be valid only for driving and not for official federal purposes, and that would be the equivalent of the infamous “illegal aliens” license that Spitzer had earlier proposed. This lowest tier of license would also be subject to a lower fee. It would also be stamped “Not Valid for Federal Purposes” in compliance with the Real ID Act. Spitzer was asked whether such a system would stigmatize a person who presented such a “driver’s only” license to the police at a traffic stop as someone likely to be in the country illegally. Spitzer maintained that no stigma would be attached to the lower-tier license and that citizens and legal residents who do not travel, who already have other forms of ID, e.g., green cards, or who have already invested in more expensive US passports for travel purposes would be interested in a cheaper “driving only” license that does not qualify as ID.

At that point, Spitzer had succeeded in framing the issue such that in order to support the right of undocumented people who are living and working in the state to drive a car, one now has to support this plunge into authoritarianism in the form of a nationally standard ID card. It was the conservatives like Joe Bruno who were attacking the proposal because it failed to punish illegal immigrants by taking away their right to drive, The liberals on the other hand, were led up and forced to shake hands with the sinister Michael Chertoff, and to agree to the principle that we all need to accept less privacy and less freedom of movement in this post-9-11 world.

However, with his popularity dropping and his plan to grant licenses to the undocumented identified as his biggest drag in the polls, on November 13, Spitzer withdrew the proposal to grant the “driver’s only” license to persons unable to prove legal residency, leaving the issue completely up in the air. He also announced that he would take a “wait and see” approach on the issuance of Real ID-compliant licenses. Indeed , on that same day, Michael A. L. Balboni, the governor’s top
domestic security aide, said:

“How can it be a nationally secure driver’s license if only 10 states are going to do it? In which case, it would make the entire debate academic…The federal government has a tremendous amount of work to do to convince the nation that Real ID is truly the way to secure this nation’s air travel.”

So, the Spitzer administration is waffling on Read ID, but, seeing the relationship that he has established with Chertoff and Homeland Security, one can only suppose that there is still movement behind the scenes to keep the sinister bill alive in New York State.

To sum it all up, appearing to be compromising to save his generous, egalitarian proposal of granting driver’s licenses even to the undocumented, Spitzer allowed the police-state measure passed by a long-gone Republican Congress to get its foot in the door. By having Chertoff shepherd him through the process and stay by his side as he justified it, he made it look as if it were Chertoff’s idea, so that liberals would still think that he was just compromising. But, with their decades of illustrious service as prosecutors—Chertoff federal and Spitzer state—we are taking about two men who have prosecutorial mentalities and want nothing other that additional tools to enhance their reach and their power. Chertoff and Spitzer worked hand in hand during the ’80s and ’90s, wiretapping and spying in their efforts against organized crime, pushing the envelope of government intrusion in an effort to create a utopia where only the government is allowed to commit crimes. Privacy, to the Spitzers and Chertoffs and Giulianis, is a thing of the past and an emotional excess that has no place in a world where government nannies have a responsibility to protect everyone. Were it not for the fanatics and emotional people like ourselves at the Shadow and a substantial number of others who do not like to have a number placed upon us to identify our status in the anthill, they would go all the way and force us to carry an internal passport like in old-time Russia, which was an even more effective tool for identifying and prosecuting the guilty. After all, what do we have to hide?


This story appeared December 2007 in The Shadow, NYC


National Identity Card Bill Passes in Senate Without Debate
The Shadow, July 2007

Silverstein Places Big Bet on Spitzer Over Ground Zero
New York Sun, March 21, 2006

From our weblog:

Spitzer capitulates on license plan
WW4 Report, Oct. 30, 2007

Enviros lose border-fence fight
WW4 Report, Dec. 20, 2006


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution