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I am not a terrorist.
How can I prove this in these paranoid times? Easy. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles took my $30 payment over the phone to clear what they said was a record of my NY drivers license having once been withdrawn, and informed the National Driver Register in Washington that I’m a good guy deserving of a renewal of my Pennsylvania drivers license.
Let me explain.
After 9-11, Congress and the Bush Department of Homeland Security went into overdrive passing things like the USA PATRIOT Act, the establishment of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) to monitor air passengers and to develop lists of people to harass at air terminals, a network of black sites to detain and torture suspected terrorists, and more recently the National Driver Register, a federal data bank designed to link all drivers licenses and car registrations to a central computer system, and thus ferret out would be terrorists trying to create false identities courtesy of the state DMVs.
I, like uncounted tens of thousands of innocent Americans, ran afoul of this latest catch-a-terrorist system as my Pennsylvania drivers license, which I first obtained in 1997 when I moved from New York to Pennsylvania, came up for a third renewal. Several months ahead of my renewal date, I got a coldly worded and ominous letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles saying my license could not be renewed because the new federal data base was reporting that my New York license had been “withdrawn” by the NY DMV.
When I called the Pennsylvania DMV to explain that my New York license had never been withdrawn or suspended (it had to have been in good order for me to have used it under the state’s reciprocity agreement with neighboring New York to obtain my new Pennsylvania license), and to ask what the problem might be, I was told that they couldn’t tell me, because the federal report doesn’t say what the problem is. Nor is there any way to contact or appeal to Washington.
My only recourse was to deal with the New York State DMV—probably one of the blackest of bureaucratic black holes known to man.
I called the number that the Pennsylvania DMV provided, and found myself connected to a maddening automated system which had no options that could respond to my problem, and that offered no way to reach a human being. Finally, by calling the media relations office of the Pennsylvania DMV and using my reporting credentials, I was able to get someone who could at least check enough into the case with New York to establish that the problem was that when I moved to Pennsylvania, transferring my car registration from New York to Pennsylvania, New York kept my car’s registration active in that state. (I don’t know what I would have done had I not been a journalist.) Then, since I had stopped paying for New York car insurance when I switched over to Pennsylvania plates and Pennsylvania insurance, my New York insurer had sent in word to the New York DMV saying my car no longer had insurance.
Never mind that my car was by then in Pennsylvania and properly insured for months before the date that New York showed my car to have become uninsured. Pennsylvania couldn’t do anything about it because the federal law says they may not issue me a license as long as there is a problem with my license in another state. There is no statute of limitations on any of this, and no method of appeal of the federal listing.
I called a number that was kindly provided by the media officer in Pennsylvania, and got through to an actual person in the New York DMV. She told me that the problem came up because when I moved to Pennsylvania and shifted my plates over to my new state of residence, I didn’t send my old license plate to New York. Never mind that there’s no way I would have known I had to send that plate in. And never mind that I did obtain a new title for the car in Pennsylvania, and that the record of that title transfer is in the national computer system. Any cop with a computer could find that out. Never mind. Eleven years after the fact, New York still needed the plates.
Of course, I’d long since sold that car for junk and didn’t have the plates. I didn’t even remember what the license number was.
The DMV woman in New York told me I could clear the whole thing up for a $30 charge, which she could take care of with a credit card over the phone.
Note that she had absolutely no way of identifying me, to know that I wasn’t a terrorist just paying her $30 so I could get a dreaded Pennsylvania drivers license to use as an ID for whatever nefarious purposes I might have in mind. She just took down the credit card number and bingo, I’m cleared to go. The New York DMV, happy with its little act of extortion, is now notifying the National Driver Register computer that I’m clear, and next week, Pennsylvania’s DMV will find my record on the National Driver Register clean and will be ready to renew my license.
This is the DMV and Homeland Security automotive equivalent of the TSA rules that have now every flier taking off her or his shoes (even baby’s’ booties!), and surrendering tubes of toothpaste and mouthwash at airport security checkpoints.
A fundamental rule about rules should be that if there are records being kept, and if actions are being taken on the basis of those records, then there has to be a way for errors to be corrected by the agency that is maintaining and disseminating those records and by any agency that is acting on the basis of those records. But in the case of America’s terrorism fetish, this rule is being violated routinely.
The “no-fly” and the “let-fly-but-first-harass” lists maintained by the TSA, which both reportedly now contain tens of thousands of names, are used by the TSA at airport checkpoints, but developed not by the TSA, but by the dozens of police and intelligence agencies of the federal government—the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the ATF, the State Department, the FBI, etc., etc. If your name turns up on the TSA list, and you end up getting strip searched every time you try to fly, the TSA will tell you you’re on the list, but they won’t tell you who put you there, and they won’t take you off either. That has to be done by the agency that reported your name—the one they won’t identify to you. It’s straight out of Kafka.
The National Driver Register is the same kind of thing. It collects information about license “problems” from all of the state DMVs, and disseminates that information widely to all the other states, but it doesn’t provide any details about what your “problem” might be. It could be anything from conviction of vehicular homicide or DWI to a 15-year old case of being late with a car insurance payment. In fact, DMV officials in both PA and NY, before they had the details, repeatedly referred to my case as a “crime” when no crime had ever been committed. And although, once I had discovered the nature of my particular “transgression,” even though the Pennsylvania DMV people agreed that it was a silly reason to withhold my licence renewal, and that in fact I had done nothing wrong and was already fully switched over to a Pennsylvania licence and car registration by the time the New York license was “withheld,” they said they were “powerless” to renew my license because of the federal law.
We are at the mercy of lunatics
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net