WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff rebuked lawmakers yesterday for seeking to stall new rules on driver's licenses that could cause big headaches for air travelers starting in May.
Federal authorities are at a standoff with a handful of states over a law called Real ID, which would require new security measures for state-issued driver's licenses.
South Carolina, Maine, and Montana are the only states that have not sought extensions to comply, or already started toward compliance with Real ID, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Yesterday, the federal agency granted Montana an extension, even though state officials didn't ask for one and insist they will not adhere to the Real ID law.
Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana said that the Homeland Security Department "painted themselves in a corner."
A fourth state, New Hampshire, has asked to be exempted, but homeland security officials do not view that letter as a legally acceptable request, so the state has not received an extension.
Governor John Lynch's spokesman, Colin Manning, said yesterday that New Hampshire has not received a response from the federal government.
Chertoff has warned that if holdout states do not send a letter by the end of March seeking an extension, come May, residents of such states will no longer be able to use their driver's licenses as valid ID to board airplanes or enter federal buildings.
Such travelers would instead have to present a passport or be subjected to secondary screening.
Five senators - Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, and John Sununu of New Hampshire - appealed to Chertoff last week to exempt all 50 states from the looming deadline.
"The Real ID program is a threat to privacy as well as an unfunded, unnecessary, and intrusive mandate on states," said Sununu, who opposes any version of a national identity card and has introduced legislation to repeal Real ID.
Chertoff responded yesterday that it was not he, but Congress who picked the date when the law went into effect in 2005.
"You may disagree with the foregoing law, but I cannot ignore it," Chertoff said in the letter.
The law, he said, is necessary for national security according to recommendations from the commission that studied the attacks.
"Secure identification is a cornerstone of protecting our communities," he said.
Yet hours after Chertoff sent those letters yesterday, Stewart Baker, assistant secretary of the Homeland Security Department, wrote to the attorney general of Montana, saying that even though the state was explicitly not seeking an extension, it would be granted one. Baker reasoned the state's new license security measures already met many of the Real ID requirements anyway.
"I can only provide the relief you are seeking by treating your letter as a request for an extension," Baker wrote.
The agency's approach to Montana could provide an easy way out for the remaining states resistant to Real ID - and suggests the federal government doesn't want to go ahead with its plan to conduct extra screening on residents of certain states.
If the two sides can't cut a face-saving deal, Chertoff has offered a blunt warning to those critics who say the government is bluffing. "Showing up at the airport with only a driver's license from such a state will be no better than showing up without identification," he wrote to the senators.
Chertoff has offered a plan to gradually implement Real ID requirements over a period of 10 years.
Critics of Real ID say it is too expensive, an invasion of privacy, and will not make the country safer.