State targets loopholes in license rules
By ALISA ULFERTS
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- By the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the immigration papers for three of the hijackers had expired. They were here illegally in the eyes of the federal government.
But they still had valid Florida identification cards and drivers' licenses, which they could have used to board the planes that were later crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania.
Three others do not appear in immigration records at all but still received Florida identification cards in late June and early July, federal officials said.
The disclosures made to a congressional committee Thursday follow weeks of refusal by state motor vehicle officials to disclose what kind of identification the terrorists used to obtain their Florida cards.
They come at a time when Florida officials are searching out and closing the loopholes in a system that licensed terrorists to drive and, unwittingly, to move about the country unnoticed as they planned their attacks.
"The driver license is accepted as the number one piece of identification," Attorney General Bob Butterworth said Friday, after he urged a joint House/Senate security committee to tighten license restrictions.
"In other countries, you don't get a driver's license by showing your Blockbuster card," he added.
Movie rental cards aren't accepted by Florida motor vehicle offices as proof of identification, but the state has been criticized for accepting other forms, including a self-reported immigration form visitors fill out while on planes bound for the United States.
The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has refused to release the terrorists' applications for their licenses, which are a public record under Florida law. The applications would show what documents the terrorists showed to prove who they are and that they were eligible for a Florida ID card or license.
Agency officials have cited security concerns and a sealed order from a federal judge ordering the applications be kept under wraps.
Despite immigration and federal law enforcement officials' statements that they can find no documentation for three of the terrorists who had Florida identification, motor vehicles department spokesman Robert Sanchez said their records show that the men did show backup documents.
"We have notation of what they presented on their applications, and they presented documents according to Florida law," Sanchez said.
"What is at issue is the authenticity of those documents," he added. Steps are being taken to help motor vehicle offices track foreign documents used to obtain driver's licenses, he said.
The congressional testimony also came the same day Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order directing the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to tighten rules for foreigners seeking drivers' licenses.
That order provides for electronic sharing of driver's license information with FDLE and other criminal justice agencies. It also allows issuing 30-day temporary permits when time is needed to verify an applicant's identity.
The order limits the duration of a driver's license to the duration of Immigration and Naturalization Service documents and directs motor vehicle offices to retain electronic copies of any foreign document used to establish identity.
In addition to the steps outlined by Bush, Butterworth shared some of his ideas for tightening access to the drivers' licenses with members of the state House and Senate committees on security. Florida needs to be certain that it issues licenses to people who really are who they claim to be, he said.
"Fifteen dead terrorists had Florida licenses," Butterworth said.
"What kind of identification did they use to get their licenses? Were these people on a watch list (for terrorists)? Could we have identified them at that point" when they got their licenses, he asked.
Examples of tightening that access to drivers' licenses include requiring fingerprints for foreigners and people seeking commercial licenses to haul hazardous materials.
The state also should consider running the photographs of all license applicants through a face-recognition software program for possible matchups with wanted criminals and suspected terrorists, he said. Tampa city officials have used that same software in Ybor City to find people wanted by police, and civil liberties groups oppose its use.
But Butterworth doesn't think the state should have to pay for all the improvements. Because state-issued drivers' licenses have become, by default, an official ID, the federal government should help with those costs, he said.
-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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From the Times state desk
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