The Death of Operation TIPS


When the Homeland Security Act was finally signed by the president after many weeks of extensive media coverage of the congressional warfare over the bill, I saw nothing of the most significant result of it all—the decision to ban what had been a key provision.

“Section 880. Prohibition of the Terrorism Information and Prevention System—Any and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) are hereby prohibited.” (Emphasis added.)

Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont had tried months ago to get Operation TIPS out of the Senate version of the bill, but Joe Lieberman, chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee, ignored his letter asking for the killing of the nationwide governmental surveillance program.

Operation TIPS had previously been stricken from the House Homeland Security bill by then majority leader Dick Armey, who was angered by the Justice Department’s plan to enlist millions of Americans to report any suspicious signs that might link some of the rest of us to terrorism. Armey, a conservative Republican libertarian, said he would not allow a law enabling “Americans to spy on one another.”

Armey eventually prevailed because the Senate essentially passed the House version of the bill, including Armey’s elimination of Operation TIPS. When the congressional battlefield was cleared, Pat Leahy released a statement on November 19, which—so far as I have seen—has been ignored by the media:

“I am pleased the bill, in section 880, forbids the creation of Operation TIPS.” Leahy noted that originally, the Justice Department had described the operation as “giving millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious . . . activity.” Or, as the department’s Web site put it, “potentially terrorist-related activity.”

After strong protests around the country, including in the Voice, TIPS was reportedly scaled back somewhat; but, as Leahy said last month, “it was unclear whether these changes reflected actual changes in the Justice Department’s plans, or whether they were simply cosmetic differences designed to blunt opposition to the program.”

At no time did the Justice Department indicate how it planned to train this horde of amateur spies. Accordingly, as Leahy emphasized, “such a setup could have allowed unscrupulous participants to abuse their new status to place innocent neighbors under undue scrutiny.” Much worse yet, the names of these innocent suspects would be transferred by the Justice Department to FBI, CIA, and other government databases that are now permitted to exchange “intelligence” information under the Homeland Security Act.

If it hadn’t been for Dick Armey, Operation TIPS would be well under way. Before the Senate passed the House version of the Homeland Security Bill, I called John Ashcroft’s office and asked when the attorney general would honor Armey’s principled removal of Operation TIPS from the House bill. I was told cheerily by an Ashcroft spokeswoman that “Operation TIPS is still a law, and we’re going right ahead with it.”

Recently, a source inside the Justice Department told me that—contrary to what I originally wrote in this column—Operation TIPS not only wasn’t Ashcroft’s idea, but he was uncomfortable with the project. Being a team player, he never criticized this national-spying-corps plan publicly.

Interestingly, there was a time when Ashcroft appeared to be somewhat of a libertarian on privacy rights. Thanks to Matt Drudge’s Web site, I have a copy of a 1997 statement by then senator John Ashcroft, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce, and Tourism. Titled “Keep Big Brother’s Hands Off the Internet,” the release by Ashcroft sounds like it was written by the ACLU:

“The protections of the Fourth Amendment are clear. The right to protection from unlawful searches is an indivisible American value. Two hundred years of court decisions have stood in defense of this fundamental right. The state’s interest in crime-fighting should never vitiate the citizens’ Bill of Rights.” (Emphasis added.)

As attorney general of the United States, however, Ashcroft has rewritten much of the Bill of the Rights in the USA Patriot Act and has unilaterally eviscerated the First, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. And most sweepingly, he has revoked core Fourth Amendment privacy rights. Even for the current version of John Ashcroft, Operation TIPS may have been a tad too much. But Governor Pataki loves it fine for New York State (see my Voice column of November 20-26).

The Bush administration’s most radical revision of the Bill of Rights—the Donald Rumsfeld-Admiral Poindexter Total Information Awareness system detailed here last week—has not been criticized by Ashcroft publicly, although it does so much more than “vitiate” the Bill of Rights.

Dick Armey, though no longer able to be a paladin for privacy in Congress, has been enlisted by the American Civil Liberties Union as a consultant under a six-month contract to—as reported in the November 23 New York Times—”work on privacy, surveillance, and national security issues.”

Under a similar arrangement, the ACLU has brought on board another conservative Republican libertarian, Bob Barr of Georgia, defeated for re-election in November. Barr has been a vigorous and consistent opponent of the Bush administration’s attacks on civil liberties, including the Total Information Awareness system.

In announcing Barr’s appointment, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said that “it indicates that the ACLU has no permanent friends and no permanent allies, just permanent values.”

Meanwhile, as described by Robert O’Harrow Jr. in the November 12 Washington Post, the emblem in Admiral Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness office is a variation on the great seal of the United States: “An eye looms over a pyramid and appears to scan the world. The motto reads: Scientia Est Potentia, or ‘knowledge is power.’ ”

But we citizens have power, too.