Tester slams Real ID Act, executive reach

Billings Gazette

by Noelle Straub

WASHINGTON – Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday said recent government programs, including the Real ID Act, have violated privacy and built executive power to the extent that it threatens national security.

"The Real ID Act was yet another in a series of sweeping laws and programs that represent an invasion of privacy by the government that far exceeds anything that we've seen in a generation," the Montana Democrat said at a forum on the Real ID Act.

That erosion of privacy started with the Patriot Act, which gave the FBI "extraordinary powers to snoop on the private lives of all Americans," he said. It was followed by the revelation of the president's secret domestic wiretapping program.

"At the core, these efforts share a common origin, the arrogant and wrongheaded belief that the federal government knows best," he said.
The failure of Congress and the administration to address the concerns of states and civil libertarians results in far more than philosophical disagreement, Tester added. "In my view, these executive powers do long-term harm to our national security."

The Real ID debate has distracted the country from the need for states to improve the security of driver's licenses and of the real mission of preventing terrorism, he said. The federal government should spend money on border security gaps rather than on looking over states' shoulders or creating a national database, he said.

"The executive branch has swept a ton of power," Tester said. "Our Founding Fathers set up three branches of government and we need to respect those three branches of government."

Tester spoke at the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, along with Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Taking needed steps to protect the country from terrorism is important, Tester said, but it has to be done without trampling on Americans' rights. "When our rights get trampled upon, the terrorists win," he said.

He said he's proud that Montana has been at the forefront of the "Real ID rebellion." The state Legislature voted last year unanimously to oppose the Real ID Act, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer also opposes it.

Tester called the act "invasive, expensive and an affront to all of those who cherish privacy rights." He said the law was written with no input, hearings or debate.

Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath sent a letter earlier this year to the Homeland Security Department saying that he could not authorize implementation of the Real ID Act. Homeland Security officials replied that they would interpret the letter to mean that Montana had asked for an extension of a May deadline to comply.

Tester said states were "threatened with retaliation for resisting DHS coercion" and that the federal government used its resources to "bully" states to go along with the program.

The law will not be fully implemented until 2017. "That's a long time to wait for action on something that will not deliver a real security benefit," Tester said.

Creating a national ID will create numerous opportunities for the stealing of personal information, he said.

Sanford's state also opposes the Real ID Act. He said people are "sleeping" through this debate and that his mission is to awaken people to the tension between security and freedom.