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