Joe Lieberman Joins Big Brother

The Return of the Thought Police

A central challenge a free society faces in countering terrorism is in maintaining its own character, protecting its citizens while preserving what makes the society worth protecting in the first place. —Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, July 28


[Operation TIPS], 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. —Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, The New York Times, July 26


When House Majority Leader Dick Armey removed from the president's Department of Homeland Security bill a domestic surveillance program called Operation Tips, it seemed as if we had been rescued from Big Brother.

John Ashcroft's Justice Department would have sent among us millions of telephone repairers, meter readers, truckers, utility workers, bus drivers, delivery workers, and other service personnel to report "suspicious" terrorist-related behavior, conversations, or other signs of "sleepers" plotting to kill Americans.

But Dick Armey could only speak for the majority in the House of Representatives, which did pass on July 26 a Homeland Security Department bill that specifically opposed TIPS and national ID cards and national driver's licenses. The legislation also included an office for civil rights and civil liberties. But the Senate had yet to act on the bill.

On July 25, John Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to calm fears such as those of conservative Orrin Hatch of Utah, who said, "We don't want to see a 1984, Orwellian-type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors."

Ashcroft satisfied Hatch by saying that Operation TIPS would consist of "a referral-system hot line." The huge flow of allegations by informants would not be put in a Justice Department database.

But Ashcroft went on to admit that the torrents of so-called information would be sent to the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, which could put these terrorism tips into their own databases. One of those agencies will be the CIA.

Vermont's Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not convinced. "We could be vigilant," he told Ashcroft, "but we don't want to be vigilantes."

On July 23, Leahy sent a letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which is in charge of the Homeland Security Department bill. The letter was also addressed to the ranking Republican member, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, and copies were sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Republican Minority Leader Trent Lott.

That is how Democrat Pat Leahy informed Lieberman that he agreed with what Republican Dick Armey had done: "I concur in the action of [Dick Armey's] prohibition on 'any and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS,' and recommend that the Senate take the same action."

When Joe Lieberman had his Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs send the Homeland Security Department bill to the floor on July 25, it did not include Pat Leahy's recommendation to publicly rename Operation TIPS.

I called Leslie Phillips, Lieberman's spokesperson on that committee, and she told me there had been no way Operation TIPS would have been "referenced in our bill."

Since the Senate Democratic Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, has shown no more passion for civil liberties than John Ashcroft, who has declared war on the Bill of Rights, Daschle's ignoring of Pat Leahy's attempt to bring the Constitution into the debate was not surprising.

On July 24, in preparation for Ashcroft's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy's press secretary, David Carle, sent out a "News Backgrounder" that explained "the historical precedent for Operation TIPS."

In World War I, Leahy had discovered, the "Department of Justice established the American Protective League, which enrolled 250,000 citizens in at least 600 cities and towns . . . to enlist 'informants' with wide access in their communities . . . to report suspicious conduct and investigate fellow citizens. The APL spied on workers and unions in thousands of industrial plants with defense contracts, and organized raids on German-language newspapers."

With the power to make arrests, "members of the League used such methods as tar and feathers, beatings, and forcing those who were suspected of disloyalty to kiss the flag. The New York Bar Association issued a report after the war, stating of the APL:

" 'No other one cause contributed so much to the oppression of innocent men as the systematic and indiscriminate agitation against what was claimed to be an all-pervasive system of German espionage.' "

This "News Backgrounder" from Leahy's office pointed out that Dick Armey had prohibited the TIPS programs in the House Homeland Security bill and that Leahy "has made the same recommendation . . . to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee."

I have seen little reporting in the media on Leahy's recommendation, Daschle's refusal to consider it, and the grim World War I precedent for Operation TIPS.

With Congress now in recess, it looks as if one of the only chances we have to be saved from the unblinking eye of Big Brother is to prevent Operation TIPS from being slipped into a House-Senate conference committee in September. The result will depend on whether there's enough pressure from enough of us on Tom Daschle to appoint Senators to that committee who agree with constitutional lawyer John Whitehead on Operation TIPS:

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