Citizens will not become informants. Citizens will not be spying on one another. —Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, NBC-TV’s Meet the Press, July 21
The July 17 editorial in The Boston Globe—not one of my columns in the Voice—was headlined, “Ashcroft vs. Americans.” It began: “Operation TIPS—The Terrorism Information and Prevention System—is a scheme that Joseph Stalin would have appreciated. Plans for its pilot phase, to start in August, have Operation TIPS recruiting a million letter carriers, meter readers, cable technicians, and other workers with access to private homes as informants to report to the Justice Department any activities they think suspicious.”
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, “Ashcroft’s 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 Progressive—a national monthly magazine also out of Madison—ran 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 didn’t 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 Security’s 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 Committee’s National Security Oversight Subcommittee, told Bill Berkowitz in The Progressive: “It appears we are being transformed from an information society to an informant society.”
Where were Al Gore, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Charles Schumer, and Hillary Rodham Clinton?
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, Armey—described in The Almanac of American Politics 2002 as often driving a pickup truck, wearing cowboy boots, and quoting country music lyrics—established, 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 Armey’s 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 Ashcroft’s spokeswoman, Barbara Comstock, and she explained that since the Senate was still debating its version of the Homeland Security Department bill, Armey’s revisions had not become law; and until—if and when—they are enacted, Operation TIPS will go forward.
Next week: How Vermont senator Patrick Leahy tried to get Armey’s 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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2002