License to terrorize

A group with close ties to the Bush administration plays the race card to push through ‘Real ID.’ But California’s DMV says the law is a real headache, and the ACLU calls it a ‘real nightmare.’

Ads by the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License played on anti-Arab sentiment to help push through the Real ID legislation.

Ads by the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License played on anti-Arab sentiment to help push through the Real ID legislation.

A recent public-relations coup scored hundreds of local, national and international mentions in newspapers and on television, radio and online sites in just over a month, reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars of free publicity for a group closely associated with the Bush administration without even launching a single ad.

It started when a lone billboard slated for a North Carolina roadside ignited a controversy about a month ago. It pictured a kaffiyeh-shrouded man holding a grenade in one hand and a North Carolina driver’s license in the other. Two others in black ski masks stood by a lush, green roadside, one with a grenade launcher in his hands. Its headline screamed, “Don’t license terrorists,” and the organization’s Web site got prominent play.

The images infuriated Arab-Americans and others, breathing life into a story that was picked up across the country and around the world. The media furor didn’t die even when the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License backed away from the concept after Lamar Advertising rejected the billboard for playing to racial fears. Indeed, the story was still smoldering on December 30, when James Zogby, founder and president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, wrote for Arab News: “Instead of making their case directly, using honest arguments, the group … exploited fear using misleading, irresponsible and bigoted scare tactics.”

Locally, Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Sacramento Valley, weighed in with his outraged assessment of the ad in early January: “It is obvious that there is an attempt to use fear as a tactic to push for an anti-immigrant agenda. Such racist and hateful tactics are un-American and immoral.”

The controversy generated by the inflammatory images spread the group’s message far beyond those who might have seen the single billboards that were proposed to go up in North Carolina and New Mexico. It was a master stroke of PR skill by coalition President Amanda Bowman, whose background includes stints at the international PR firms Hill & Knowlton and Ogilvy, bringing national attention to the issue without even spending the paltry $50,000 that had been allocated to the billboard campaign.

Bowman defended the images by saying they were “taken directly from terrorist Web sites” and were used “to differentiate [terrorists] from ordinary Muslim American citizens.”

Nevertheless, the images have ignited anti-Arab passions and created a wide-ranging flap just as efforts are getting under way to implement the Real ID Act passed by Congress last spring that would impose federal regulations on the design, issuance and management of state driver’s licenses. States have until 2008 to implement standard requirements. Citizens with driver’s licenses from states that don’t comply would not be able to use them to board airplanes or enter federal buildings.

The coalition says it just wants to keep terrorists from obtaining driver’s licenses. But civil-liberties and immigration-rights groups say there’s more to it. They caution that uniform security standards for driver’s licenses may be a first step toward a national ID card, which could provide a way for government to monitor citizens by requiring them to carry cards that could reveal a range of private information. The requirements, they argue, would lead to discrimination by empowering motor-vehicle-department staffs to decide if someone is a citizen or a foreigner before issuing a license.

Earlier last year, another of the coalition’s ads brought national attention to the driver’s-license issue when it aired it on The O’Reilly Factor. The commercial, which Bill O’Reilly characterized as targeting illegal immigration, was created by the same folks responsible for the swift-boat vets commercials that helped sink John Kerry’s bid for the presidency. And the reaction from Arab-Americans was similar. Appearing on the March 15 show, Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, labeled the commercial’s tactics “scaremongering.” Although Bowman said little to defend the message that night, O’Reilly (who’s cited in recent press reports as the coalition’s “spokesperson”) concluded: “The more frightened we are, the more things get done, because, right now, nothing’s getting done.”

Although Bowman’s role as president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License is public, her position as New York director of the Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit think tank that pursues a conservative agenda and boasts a bevy of members currently working in the Bush administration, is less well-known. None of the hundreds of media reports of the controversy over the billboard ads—not even The Washington Post’s December 25 report—mentioned Bowman’s connection to neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

The Center for Security Policy’s motto is “Promoting Peace Through Strength”; its mission is “identifying policies, actions and resource needs that are vital to ensuring American preeminence.” It equates its battle against “Islamofascism” with the Cold War on communism. Founded in 1988, the center claims no partisan objectives, but the organization makes no secret of its ties to neoconservatives and the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney was an early member. And today, 18 of the center’s members serve in the government, including former California Governor Pete Wilson, who’s a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board; Elliott Abrams, now special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and North African affairs; and others working at the White House and the Departments of State and Defense. Recipients of the center’s Keeper of the Flame Award include Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (1998), then-Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (1996) and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (2003).

Bowman didn’t return SN&R’s calls to discuss the coalition’s problems with California’s current licensing requirements or any plans it may have to bring its campaign directly to this state. A look at the organization’s Web site, which ranks the 50 states according to threat level using the same color-coded designations as the Homeland Security Department’s advisory system, shows California colored yellow. The state earns an “elevated” rating because the DMV doesn’t include checks for expired visas in its criteria for issuing driver’s licenses, one of the four criteria the coalition wants all states to use.

California’s DMV revealed its concern over the extensive changes the Real ID Act would require in a nationwide study of state motor-vehicles departments released January 12. DMV officials say requirements, such as those to authenticate and store birth certificates, would have a major impact on the department.

Opponents say the law’s requirements would heighten discrimination, create bureaucratic nightmares and open the door to greater government intrusions on privacy, all without doing anything to effectively combat terrorism. Calling Real ID a “real nightmare,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called on Congress to hold hearings on the Real ID Act and has urged Californians “to join with others around the country and help block this disastrous law before it’s too late.”

California’s Legislature also must take action before Real ID becomes a reality in the state. While this debate continues, the billboard campaign continues to exert a subtle influence through the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License’s Web site, where the provocative images remain posted more than a month after Bowman told reporters the concept had been abandoned.