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Plan Likened to Cold War Paranoia
Published on Wednesday, July 17, 2002 in the Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)
Operations TIPS, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System
Plan Likened to Cold War Paranoia
by Kathryn Casa
 

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 time.

"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," Leahy said.

"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.

©1999-2002 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and NENI Newspapers

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