Now the Justice department wants to extend the new investigative powers to private citizens. It recently unveiled Operation TIPS- Terrorism Information and Prevention System- as part of President Bushs Citizen Corps initiative. The goal is to enlist thousands or even millions of Americans to act as spies for the government, reporting suspicious activity to officials using a handy toll-free hotline. The Justice department especially hopes to enlist mailmen, delivery drivers, plumbers, gas-meter readers, and the like, as they have access to private homes and businesses in their daily work. As usual, the war on terror is offered as justification for this proposal.
This almost might be funny if it were not real. Imagine the rampant abuses possible with a national spy program. Busybodies across the country will clamor to join the effort and act as self-appointed neighborhood vigilantes. Unscrupulous individuals of every stripe will abuse the program by snitching on ex-spouses, personal enemies, and racial groups they dont like. Bickering neighbors will enjoy calling in to report unkempt lawns and barking dogs as sure signs of nefarious activity. I certainly hope the Justice department employs some very patient people to field the flood of useless calls.
If a government-sponsored snitch program sounds pretty bad to you, youre not alone. Some commentators draw parallels between Operation TIPS and the citizen informants of the former East German Stasi secret police. Of course, suggesting the obvious- that citizen spy programs are incompatible with a free society- invites denunciations and sharp reminders that "were at war." Remember, however, that wars have been used throughout modern history to justify rapid expansion of state power at the expense of personal liberty. We cannot remain free if we allow the endless, undeclared war on terror to serve as an excuse for giving up every last vestige of our privacy.
I applaud Congressman Dick Armey for adding a provision to
the homeland security bill that would prohibit the Justice department
from implementing the TIPS program. His opposition brings needed
public attention to this terrible idea. But even if Congress
supports him, there is no guarantee another informant proposal
will not surface soon thereafter. Congressional oversight of
administrative agencies (consider the Treasury department and
its renegade IRS) is nonexistent. The Justice department almost
certainly will seek another way to implement the program, with
or without congressional approval.