Published on Friday, July 26, 2002 in the New York Times
Worker Corps to be Formed to Report Odd Activity
by Adam Clymer
WASHINGTON, July 25 Brushing off Congressional complaints about creating a "snitch system," Attorney General John Ashcroft said today the administration would go ahead to form a corps of truck and bus drivers, port workers, meter readers, letter carriers and others to report suspicious activities around the nation.
In the House, the attack on the program, known as TIPS (for Terrorism Information and Prevention System), has been led by conservative Republicans, including the majority leader Dick Armey and Representative Bob Barr of Georgia.
After a firestorm of criticism last week, mainly from conservatives, the House is prepared to prohibit the planned program in the Homeland Security Department legislation. Mr. Armey said the ban was needed so the government would not "promote citizens spying on one another."
But in the Senate, where Mr. Ashcroft appeared today, conservatives are not as concerned about privacy as their House counterparts are. So the attacks come from liberals like Senators Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Charles E. Schumer of New York.
Mr. Ashcroft was defended by Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama. "We get complaints from left and right," Mr. Sessions said, noting both sets of objectors. "We have some paranoid people on the right also."
At a contentious hearing of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Ashcroft said industries like trucking sought the TIPS program, which could make good use of people who would notice "anomalies," like a truck parked in a neighborhood doing surveillance work. He insisted that the corps would not invade homes.
Senator Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, seemed unsatisfied, saying "the program would enlist thousands, even millions, of civilians as TIPS informants to report their suspicions to the Justice Department."
"We could be vigilant," he said, "but we don't want to be vigilantes."
Mr. Ashcroft sought to calm one area of concern by insisting that the TIPS program would not maintain a computer database of reports, but would simply forward tips it received to other agencies.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the committee's senior Republican, said that commitment was "reassuring" because, "We don't want to see a `1984' Orwellian-type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors."
President Bush mentioned the TIPS program in his State of the Union speech, and again in Knoxville on April 8 when he said, "This is a program where truckers can report anything that might be suspicious." He added, "If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it. This is a way to organize that which already happens in our communities on a daily basis and a way to make the homeland more secure and more prepared."
The program, which the Justice Department intends to begin on a pilot basis in 10 cities next month, languished in relative obscurity until this month, when the American Civil Liberties Union said, "The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned peeping Toms." Mr. Ashcroft said today that the administration "never proposed cable installers," adding, "That's part of just the apocrypha."
Mr. Barr called TIPS a "snitch system," saying, "A formal program, organized, paid for and maintained by our own federal government to recruit Americans to spy on fellow Americans, smacks of the very type of fascist or Communist government we fought so hard to eradicate in other countries in decades past."
Mr. Leahy offered a homegrown example of excess today. "In 1917, the Justice Department formed the American Protective League, who had volunteers to report on people who might criticize their government," he said. "Sometimes they would turn into vigilante groups that raided newspaper offices, actually tarred and feathered some people."
Laura W. Murphy, director of the A.C.L.U.'s national office here, said after the hearing that Mr. Ashcroft did not ease her group's fears. "Notwithstanding all of these assurances, this is still government-sanctioned peeping Toms," she said. "This is a program where people's activities, statements, posters in their windows or on their walls, nationality, and religious practices will be reported by untrained individuals without any relationship to criminal activity."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company