By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
This newest John Ashcroft battle plan in the war on civil liberties would have us join the citizens of China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, and other countries where there is ubiquitous surveillance for signs of disloyalty to the state. Not only Joseph Stalin but also George Orwell would have understood what John Ashcroft had in mind. As The Boston Globe went on to say, "Ashcrofts informant corps is a vile idea not merely because it violates civil liberties . . . or because it will sabotage genuine efforts to prevent terrorism by overloading law enforcement officials with irrelevant reports about Americans who have nothing to do with terrorists. Operation TIPS should be stopped because it is utterly anti-American." I was first alerted to Operation TIPS by Matt Olson in Isthmus, a lively alternative paper from Madison, Wisconsin. Then the May issue of The Progressivea national monthly magazine also out of Madisonran the full story by Bill Berkowitz, a regular contributor to Working Assets workingforchange.com.
This time, John Ashcroft was so confident of public applause for his plan to smoke out the lurking terrorist "sleepers" among us that he didnt keep it secret. On May 29, on the government Web site (www.citizencorps.gov/tips.html) there it was! Meet Big Brother:
"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. Operation TIPS, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice, will begin as a pilot program in 10 cities that will be selected. . . . 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."
By July 16, that government Web site had removed the listing of specific kinds of worker-informants who would be watching us, but it noted that all the tipsters had to do was "use their common sense and knowledge of their work environment to identify suspicious or unusual activity." There was no definition of "suspicious" or "unusual." The president endorsed Operation TIPS, as did Homeland Securitys Tom Ridge and Senate Republican Minority Leader Trent Lott. The ACLU, of course, opposed Operation TIPS. As usual, there was no word of alarm from Tom Daschle or Dick Gephardt. But Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight Committees National Security Oversight Subcommittee, told Bill Berkowitz in The Progressive: "It appears we are being transformed from an information society to an informant society."
Suddenly, however, Operation TIPS seemed to crash. On July 19, Ellen Sorokin reported in The Washington Times that a prominent conservative, "House Majority Leader Dick Armey, in his markup of legislation to create a Homeland Security Department . . . scrapped a program that would use volunteers in domestic surveillance."
The Postal Service, in part because of the pressure from its unions, had already refused to permit its letter carriers to participate in Operation TIPS.
What follows is from Dick Armey's markup on the "Freedom and Security" section of the Homeland Security Bill. He wrote: "Because the [Homeland Security] Department has a singular mission of protecting the freedoms of Americans, specific legal protections will ensure that freedom is not undermined. . . . Citizens Will Not Become Informants. To ensure that no operation of the Department can be construed to promote citizens spying on one another, this draft will contain language to prohibit programs such as Operation TIPS."
Armey also canceled a cherished Bush-Ashcroft anti-terrorism weapon, a national ID card. Wrote Armey: "The federal government will not have the authority to nationalize drivers licenses and other ID cards. Authority to design and issue these cards shall remain with the states. The use of biometric identifiers and Social Security numbers with these cards is not consistent with a free society."
Also, Armeydescribed in The Almanac of American Politics 2002 as often driving a pickup truck, wearing cowboy boots, and quoting country music lyricsestablished, in his markup of the Homeland Security Department bill, "A Privacy Officer. Working as a close adviser to the Secretary, this officer will ensure technology research and new regulations from the Department respect the civil liberties our citizens enjoy. This is the first-ever such officer established by law in a cabinet department." (Emphasis added).
Despite Dick Armeys rejection of the Bush-Ashcroft plan for what conservative Republican Bob Barr calls an official "snitch system," the Department of Justice declared that Operation TIPS will continue. I called Ashcrofts spokeswoman, Barbara Comstock, and she explained that since the Senate was still debating its version of the Homeland Security Department bill, Armeys revisions had not become law; and untilif and whenthey are enacted, Operation TIPS will go forward.
Next week: How Vermont senator Patrick Leahy tried to get Armeys rejection of Big Brother into the Senate bill, but was betrayed by Joseph Lieberman and Tom Daschle. We may not know until September, when the Senate returns, if we are all under government surveillance.