Group sues for access to security documents

Alarmed that the Office of Homeland Security may be secretly developing elements of a national identification system, a privacy watchdog organization filed suit in federal court April 2 demanding access to the office's working documents.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued after the Office of Homeland Security and its director, Tom Ridge, failed to respond to a March 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for copies of office records.

EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said his organization wants records that detail the office's efforts to get states to issue standardized driver's licenses, create a trusted flier program and use biometric technology to identify U.S. citizens and foreign visitors.

EPIC officials fear that such activities could lead to the creation of intrusive national ID systems that would have "enormous implications for privacy and civil liberties in America," Rotenberg said.

White House spokewsoman Illa Brown said, "The Office of Homeland Security is not considering any plans for a system of national ID cards." But she would not say why the office and Ridge did not respond to EPIC's FOIA request.

The failure to respond may be more important than the information a response might have yielded, Rotenberg said. But perhaps most important, he stressed, is establishing that the Office of Homeland Security must operate in public view.

David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel, said the Office of Homeland Security "is subject to the same record disclosure obligations as are other federal agencies that engage in significant policy-making."

"This will be a critical test of open government," Rotenberg said during a telephone press conference after filing the suit. Openness is emerging as an increasingly contentious issue for the Office of Homeland Security. For several weeks, Ridge has refused to testify before Congress about Bush administration plans for spending $38 billion on homeland security.

The administration contends that Ridge is an adviser to the president, not a Cabinet member or agency chief who required Senate confirmation, and as such cannot be required to testify. But members of Congress from both parties say Ridge has an obligation to appear when summoned by congressional committees to answer questions. Ridge has proposed informal meetings as an alternative to congressional hearings.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Rotenberg sided with members of Congress who say Ridge is obliged to answer questions when summoned by congressional committees. He said that "significant new powers" have been allocated to the Office of Homeland Security that "require meaningful public oversight."

EPIC views national ID cards as a major step toward establishing the infrastructure for a national surveillance system. National ID cards could enable the government to track personal activities and transactions, EPIC officials contend.

Supporters of national IDs say they would enhance national security by making it harder for foreign visitors to evade detection.

EPIC seeks information on model legislation that the Office of Homeland Security officials say they are drafting to require states to link the expiration dates of driver's licenses issued to foreigners to the expiration dates of their visas.

The privacy organization also wants records related to efforts to standardize driver's licenses across the country. Standard driver's licenses and interconnected state databases on drivers could form the basis for a national ID system, EPIC officials contend.

EPIC's Sobel said he has similar concerns about a trusted flier program that interests Ridge's office. That program would provide ID cards, probably including biometric identifiers, to frequent fliers who undergo thorough background checks. Cardholders would be able to bypass detailed security screenings and the delays they cause at airports.

But the trusted flier ID cards could also become the foundation for a broader system of federally issued biometric ID cards, Sobel said.

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