BRATTLEBORO -- Likening a new program to recruit 1 million citizen informants
to Soviet-style repression, Sen. Patrick Leahy, said Tuesday he will have some
tough questions for Justice Department leaders spearheading the effort.
"I find it kind of scary," Leahy told the Reformer Tuesday about the little-known
Operations TIPS, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, which is set
to launch next month.
According to a government Web site, TIPS "will be a nationwide program giving
millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains,
utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity."
"We used to laugh at the old Soviet Union idea where everybody reported everybody
else," said Leahy. " ... We don't need to have it happen here. "
The Vermont Democrat, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will
challenge Attorney General John Ashcroft on the need for TIPS when Ashcroft appears
before the committee next week.
Federal officials are releasing little information about the program. But
the Web site, www.citizencorps.gov, indicates Citizen Corps is a component of
the president's USA Freedom Corps program introduced by Bush in his State of the
Union address in January that called on Americans to donate 4,000 hours of volunteer
"Citizen Corps creates opportunities for individuals to volunteer to help
communities bring together a network of volunteers and first responders at the
local levels," Debbie Garrett, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management
Agency in Washington, told the Reformer Tuesday.
One of the five parts of the Department of Justice Program includes Operations
TIPS, which the Washington Times described Tuesday as "a national reporting pilot
program scheduled to start next month in 10 cities, with 1 million informants
-- or nearly 4 percent of Americans -- initially participating in the program."
"Not everyone can volunteer for this," Garrett said of TIPS. "You have to
be chosen as part of selected industries to be on the lookout for suspicious and
terrorist-related activity. They put that information into a toll-free number
that goes to 911 to help out local law enforcement."
According to the Web site, the system will allow workers "whose routines make
them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity."
Participants are promised an Operation TIPS information sticker to be affixed
to the cab of their vehicle or placed in some other public location so that the
toll-free reporting number is readily available.
"Everywhere in America, a concerned worker can call a toll-free number and
be connected directly to a hotline routing calls to the proper law enforcement
agency or other responder organizations when appropriate," the Web site states.
But Leahy said he finds the pan implausible.
"The idea that they're going to have some huge data bank where everybody --
from a next door neighbor who may have a gripe toward you because of your dog
barking, to the person who fixes the cable in your house and doesn't like some
of the books you're reading -- that they're going to report this into some data
bank in Attorney General Ashcroft's office really doesn't make me feel more secure,"
"Trained FBI agents had (information about) radical Islamic fundamentalists
trying to learn how to fly airplanes and they couldn't handle that, but suddenly
they're going to be able to handle thousands of unsubstantiated tips from the
person reading your electric meter? ... This doesn't make us more secure. I think
this turns us into a nation of paranoids."
Leahy said he will question Ashcroft about the program next week when the
attorney general appears before the judiciary committee.
The Washington Post, too, posed a few questions about the program in a July
14 editorial. "What sort of home activities will the government be urging workers
to report to authorities? And what incentives, if any, will be used to encourage
volunteers," the editorial asks.
Joel Barkin, a spokesman for Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said the congressman,
who was not aware of the program before Tuesday, has some doubts.
"Congressman Sanders be-lieves that the effort to make this county as safe
as possible needs to be vigorous, but we should be very cautious about any proposal
that undermines the democratic principles which we as a nation are fighting to
preserve," Barkin said. "It certainly is raising some serious concerns."
What remained unclear Tuesday was whether the program has been put in place,
or whether it must be approved by Congress.
Calls to the Department of Justice were not returned, and the FEMA spokeswoman
declined to answer that question.
According to one source, however, Citizen's Corps' $50 million budget passed
the House but remains in jeopardy in the Senate.
Diane Derby, a spokeswoman for Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vermont, admitted the
senator had not seen specifics about Citizen Corps. "We're happy that Sen. Leahy
is the chair of judiciary and will be reviewing these issues," she said.
"In any area where we're responding to terrorism (Jeffords) does feel that
everyone must be vigilant, but you've got to strike a good balance between the
need for national safety and the need to ensure civil liberties, and that would
hold true as he reviews this proposal," Derby added.
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