''WATCHING AMERICA with Pride, not Prejudice.'' This is the Orwellian motto of the New Jersey-based Community Anti-Terrorism Training Institute, or CAT Eyes, an antiterrorist citizen informant program being adopted by local police departments throughout the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. Mike Licata, a high school teacher and retired Air Force officer, created the CAT Eyes program in cooperation with ex-military SWAT officer Jason McClendon and businessman Tony Elghossain.
In a recent telephone interview, Licata said he wants to use CAT Eyes to create what he calls ''a modern civil defense network,'' converting neighborhood watch groups into antiterrorist informant cells. These groups, constantly watching for signs of terrorist activity in their neighborhoods and workplaces, would report suspicious activities directly to the FBI. Said Licata: ''I envision 100 million Americans looking for indicators of terrorism and promptly reporting it to a central database where it would get analyzed.''
According to Licata, city and town police departments in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio have adopted the program, as well as the Washington, D.C., Park Police, and scattered cities in Florida, Nevada, and California. University police departments, including at MIT, are also adopting the program.
Licata singles out the Boston police for praise, noting that they have assigned 20 community service officers to conduct citizen trainings. He will, no doubt, use his increasing local successes to leverage bids for state and federal funds. Licata says he is trying to develop a statewide program with the Virginia governor's office and is currently drafting funding proposals to the Department of Justice and to President Bush's CitizenCorps program.
Licata has few qualms about the prospect of CAT Eyes-trained citizens spying on their neighbors. ''If I felt that my neighbor of 10 years was doing fund-raising for a group, I'd turn 'em in,'' says Licata. After all, he says, the FBI will ''just investigate them -- and if you're wrong, you're wrong. And if you're right, that's a big thing!''
Licata does emphasize that racial profiling is wrong, and his training materials disavow racism. Terrorism, he says, ''has nothing to do with race or religion. Timothy McVeigh was an Irish-American and he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma.''
However, such assurances give cold comfort. Citizen informers, after all, are not subject to the same public accountability as police officers. If a citizen informer unfairly targets certain races or ethnic groups, there is no way to keep track of it and no way to punish the errant informer. Licata himself admits, ''If someone goes the wrong way, there's nothing I can do about that.''
Moreover, with or without racial profiling, CAT Eyes could severely curtail our expectations of privacy. If Licata comes even close to his stated goal of 100 million informers, CAT Eyes would dwarf the citizen informer programs of the most repressive totalitarian states, making them appear amateurish by comparison.
Even communist East Germany, a tightly controlled society with more informants per capita than either Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, was not as ambitious about citizen surveillance as CAT Eyes. In its heyday, the East German secret police, or Stasi, is generally believed to have had about 2 million informers, or about one-eighth of the East German population.
CAT Eyes wants to train more than one in three Americans to be FBI informers. As the number of such informers rises, participants in even the smallest of dinner parties and water cooler gossip sessions could reasonably fear that expressing controversial opinions or admitting to ''suspicious'' associations would attract the attention of the FBI.
This comes at a time when cherished American rights to privacy are already under assault. Last year the FBI obtained warrants for 1,228 secret antiterrorism searches and wiretaps, a 30 percent increase over 2001. In April, the CIA requested congressional authority to conduct its own searches and wiretaps of US residents independent of the FBI. (Though congressional Democrats successfully scuttled the proposal this time around, it is likely to resurface soon.) Meanwhile, Justice Department lawyers are quietly drafting proposals to further expand the FBI's authority to use secret wiretaps and conduct searches with little or no judicial oversight.
A country that encourages neighbors to spy on neighbors is a not just a sick society but a weak one. Cooperation and solidarity will never flourish in an America suffused by the paranoia and mutual suspicion inevitably generated by an informer culture -- yet those are exactly the assets we need if we are to confront the terrorist threat with our national values intact.
Carl Takei is a paralegal with a Boston law firm and a civil liberties activist.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.