By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- On both sides of the Atlantic, the barriers against government identification papers in free societies are breaking down. The need for security and the thirst for information about us appear to be prevailing.
Britain is close to its first national identification card since World War II, and the U.S. Congress has ordered the first minimum national standards for state driver's licenses -- possibly the first step toward creating a national ID card.
Both Britain and the United States acted because of 9/11. The congressional provision on state driver's licenses was part of the big intelligence overhaul that was pushed through Congress last year as a result of the work of the American 9/11 Commission. Britain's ID-card reform, under Tony Blair's Labor government, gained irreversible momentum after the attacks, which shocked John Bull as much as Uncle Sam in many ways.
The ability of the 9/11 hijackers to purchase airline tickets and get around passport and border officials so easily with forged documents was a stunning blow at liberty and freedom of movement.
In Britain, the majority of Blair's Labor Party and most of the Tories put aside years of misgivings about identity cards. Compulsory identification cards had been associated with Nazi and totalitarian rule, but public opinion polls show 80 percent of the British now accept the idea.
I only had a couple weeks' vacation over there, so I don't pretend to know where this will land. But from the newspapers, I gather that only the Liberal Party remains steadfast in opposition to Blair's plan. It likely will be completed in Parliament, just before Blair stands for re-election to a third term this spring and presumably will go into effect in 2008.
The British last had ID cards to prevent Nazi infiltration, but nothing this detailed was attempted. The new cards will create a national database with 51 categories of information, including fingerprints and an iris scan, on each citizen. All this will be used to protect against identity theft as well as terrorist forgeries.
Civil libertarians, who don't like the idea of government prying into bedrooms, bank accounts and personal habits, are most concerned about what happens to that database
The U.S. driver's-license minimum requirements, which go into effect in 2008, do not -- at least for now -- set up any kind of government database. Consequently, the law's new requirement for common, machine-readable identity information doesn't have much utility for now.
But it is only a matter of time before passengers are required to "swipe" driver's licenses through turnstiles as they board and states share the information gleaned.
The FBI, CIA and the newly created intelligence and counterintelligence organizations have a need for this information. And the Scotland Yard database, when it gets rolling in Britain, is bound to be so impressive as a law-enforcement tool that pressure will build here to replicate it, at least for international flights.
As always, however, the question is, why collect all this data? Few on either side of the Atlantic quarrel with the need for more security against terrorists or to protect against identity fraud. And in the United States there is a special and growing problem with undocumented aliens that will only be solved by forgery-proof identification.
Yet, national identity cards in Europe also are widely used as proof at the point of purchase for merchandise and services. British Home Minister Charles Clarke recently said the new cards would be good not only for fighting terrorism but in renting and buying books, music, films, videos and other merchandise all over the world. Clarke is the equivalent of the American attorney general, but he seemed not in the least concerned about the legal implications of the government collecting information on people's intellectual and personal life.
Over here, Americans are a bit slower to adapt to that sort of loose legal reasoning.
This is a law-abiding country, as they say.
When someone from government asks "what's in your wallet?" it must be for a good, sufficient and constitutional reason.
X John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.