San Diego Union-Tribune

October 14, 2001

Ease of getting IDs, other documents a concern
   Solving problem won't be simple, experts say


WASHINGTON -- The ease with which the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks obtained driver's licenses and other identification documents has alarmed terrorism and identity theft experts, leading to calls for stricter regulations or some sort of national identity card.

But the experts also caution that there is no simple solution to the problem, citing both practical problems and concerns about civil liberties.

"We might become a show-me-your-papers nation, and perhaps we will still not have solved the problem," said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearing House. "I think when you've got people
as determined as the terrorists, they're going to outwit just about any system that could be developed."

At least seven of the terrorists, including two who lived in San Diego, fraudulently obtained identification cards in Virginia, according to federal court documents. They took advantage of the state's notoriously lax regulations for verifying identity and residency.

Others reportedly got driver's licenses in Michigan and New Jersey.

Besides using them to board the planes they hijacked, the terrorists could have used the IDs to set up bank accounts, obtain credit cards, rent cars and for other purposes to further their plot.

"What we have created, unfortunately, in this country is a set of documents that are being used for identification that are really based on quicksand. There is no conclusive proof that says this is indeed who this person really is," said Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, another San Diego group that helps people combat identity fraud.

On Aug. 1, two of the terrorists who were based in San Diego for a time, Hani Hanjour and Khalid al-Midhar, obtained fraudulent IDs from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, according to court documents.

Virginia law allows applicants to use notarized affidavits to certify their identity and residency, rather than requiring documents that contain their names and addresses, like utility bills.

Hanjour and al-Midhar listed a false address in Falls Church, Va., on their affidavits. Investigators say that a Virginia resident falsely certified they lived at the address.

In subsequent days, five other terrorists -- Salem Alhazmi, Majed Moqed, Abdul Aziz Al Omari, Ahmed Saleh Al Ghamdi and Ziad Jarrah -- obtained Virginia IDs through similar means, according to the FBI. Hanjour and al-Midhar used their new IDs to certify fake addresses for three of their henchmen and another Virginia resident.

The two Virginia residents have been arrested and charged with identity document fraud, but apparently were not otherwise involved in the terrorist
plot. The terrorists paid a total of $335 for help in obtaining the IDs.

Ten days after the attacks, Virginia officials suspended the affidavit option -- which had long been known to have spawned a cottage industry in identity fraud exploited mostly by illegal immigrants.

Givens points out that security precautions vary widely from state to state. Some lawmakers and anti-terrorism experts have recommended the creation of a uniform national ID, which could include hard-to-falsify "biometric" data, like facial patterns or fingerprints.

But experts caution such a system would take years to set up and implement, and involves huge start-up costs. And identity fraud experts doubt whether a
national ID would be foolproof.

"No matter how difficult you make it," said Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center, "whatever you implement today somebody's going to figure
out a way to get around it."