WASHINGTON -- A proposal to stop potential terrorists from getting a U.S. driver's license may turn the licenses into a national ID card or help the government track gun purchases, opponents fear.
Conservatives, civil libertarians, gun owners and others share such concerns about a House-passed bill that broadly rewrites the rules for licenses and is portrayed as an anti-terrorism tool.
They fear that licenses, like Social Security numbers, could be used for purposes well beyond their original intent.
These opponents say the measure, passed by a 261-161 vote last month and supported by the White House, even could make it possible for the government to monitor people's movements in the country through a chip in a license.
"Supporters of this don't seem to have the ability to look beyond how this system they are putting in place can change. They can't see how it can metamorphose into a national ID card," said Steve Lilienthal, director of the Free Congress Foundation Center for Privacy & Technology.
The House passed the legislation Feb. 10. Supporters promote the bill, which the Senate has yet to consider, as another way to fight terrorism.
Under the measure, states must verify they are giving licenses to U.S. citizens and legal residents. If they fail to do so, federal officers cannot accept licenses from residents of those states as proof of identity to get on an airplane or into a federal building, for example.
Lilienthal, whose think tank says it is politically and culturally conservative, asked what is there to stop the government from eventually requiring information about people's health, criminal backgrounds or gun ownership.
Larry Pratt, executive director of Springfield, Va.-based Gun Owners of America, says the bill "hands an open-ended blank check" to the government to collect information about people.
States can opt out of the requirements, but the bill would withhold money from states for driver's license improvements if they do.
The bill's sponsor, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told colleagues that the minimum standards already are met by most states and are intended to prod those whose lax licensing checks are "a magnet for foreign terrorists, criminals, home grown identity thieves and illegal aliens."
The Sept. 11 commission urged Congress last year to make it harder for people to get a driver's license, noting that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers fraudulently obtained licenses that allowed them to board commercial flights.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, played down the privacy concerns and said the bill is written in such a way as to prevent abuse. He said national driver's license standards are indispensable to curbing illegal immigration.
"No one has a legitimate privacy question over whether someone is legal or not. That ought to be verifiable," he said.
But in Montana, members of the state House are refusing to cede their driver's license authority to Washington. Last week, they approved a bill that prohibits the adoption of federal driver's license standards for noncommercial licenses.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., was one of eight Republicans who voted against the bill.
"In our efforts to protect our homeland and increase our border security we must move forward with solid measures. At the same time, our individual civil rights are nonnegotiable," Pombo said in a statement. "The establishment of a national ID card, I believe, has the possibility of violating those rights."
On the Net:
Information on the bill, H.R. 418, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov