News and Document archive source
copyrighted material disclaimer at bottom of page

NewsMinesecuritybigbrothertips — Viewing Item

The spy who reads your meter

Original Source Link: (May no longer be active)

The Spy Who Reads Your Meter

Ashcroft's Plan To Turn Your Neighbors Into Snoops
Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at

Six months ago the Bush administration quietly announced a domestic informants program that would involve mail carriers, truck drivers, and utility workers, among others. But soon after the media focused a spotlight on the project, just weeks before it was supposed to begin, the Justice Department began backpedaling, downplaying the program.

The Terrorism Information and Prevention System (Operation TIPS), is scheduled to begin in August. In its pilot stage, TIPS involves training one million Americans to report suspicious "terrorist" activity, according to the original statement on its Web site.

Legal experts, intelligence analysts and civil liberties groups likened TIPS to a civilian-spying program likely to spread mass paranoia and silence political dissent.

"This is one more alarming step that the government is taking to make it easier to surveil people, to intimidate people and then cut back on civil liberties," said Marjorie Cohn, associate professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and member of the national executive committee of the National Lawyers Guild. "It's asking neighbors to spy on each other and inform."

In a sign that even Republicans are distancing themselves from the administration's plan, House Majority Leader Dick Armey recently rejected Operation TIPS in his markup of a bill to create a Homeland Security Department.

Information on the TIPS Web site said it is slated to begin in 10 American cities. But little other details were available on the massive undertaking. The Web site did not say how much training volunteers would get, nor did it define "suspicious activity."

Since the terrorist attacks last fall, fear has caused many people to imagine suspicious activity at every corner. On July 16, CNN reported that fighter jets escorted an airline to New York, after a passenger reported "suspicious" activity by other passengers. The suspicious activity? A traveling entertainment troupe was passing notes, and changing seats.

"Anything that, within the normal stream of America, is not 'regular,' which is to say anything politically, either presumably right or left, could be picked up and reported as suspicious activity," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The TIPS project, part of the Citizen Corps, announced by President Bush in his State of the Union address, is intended to enlist public participation in homeland security. TIPS received little attention until a July 14 Washington Post editorial raised questions about its feasibility or purpose.

At that time, the project's Web site gave only a brief three-paragraph description, one of which announced with much fanfare a sticker with the toll-free reporting number, which informants would get to stick on their car.

"It's altogether amateurish," said Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, chuckling about the sticker announcement. "I can easily imagine the program being overwhelmed by spurious or unproductive leads. I wouldn't want to be the person who answers the phone."

With the spotlight suddenly on TIPS, the Internet description was expanded to five paragraphs, and reference to the sticker deleted. In another sign that support for the project was crumbling, the Postal Service announced on July 17 that it would not be participating in the program at this time, according to an Associated Press report.

A Justice Department spokesman said the project was still in its beginning stages and no further information was available.

Others echoed Aftergood's concern about the FBI's ability to process the millions of so-called tips likely to pour in from informants.

"The FBI should first look to their own house and correct what's wrong and have a public hearing on what happened -- that they missed 9/11 -- before they start giving new powers, and certainly before they start making spies out of your service people," Ratner said.

Once an informant has reported a "suspicious" activity -- perhaps an Arabic book on a bookshelf, or a poster of Che Guevara -- that information will be noted in a computer file accessible to a web of agencies, presumably without the individual's knowledge. Ratner questioned how this would affect the lives of individuals on a daily basis; for example, would the database be accessible to prospective employers?

"People's suspicions and reports depend very much on 'the length of their own arm,'" Ratner said. "So if a guy comes into my house in the city and sees an Arab head dress, or a scarf of my wife's, he's going to say, 'Jesus, there's Muslims in this house, maybe I ought to report Michael Ratner."

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial on July 18 noted that libertarians from the political left, like the American Civil Liberties Union, and right, like the Rutherford Institute, had come out against Operation TIPS.

Historians likened the program to techniques used in the former Soviet Union, or by the East German Stasi secret police, which encouraged civilian spying.

"Stalin made it clear in World War II that the Germans were trying to corrupt the Soviet Union and called on citizens to report any secret activity -- wives were informing on husbands, children on parents, neighbors on neighbors," Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of international security at the National War College. He said such programs fueled a culture of paranoia. "We could create paranoia. Sometimes I think the government is trying to create paranoia," he said.

Ratner and other legal experts questioned the Justice Department's motives, saying the government may be attempting to circumvent the fourth amendment, which requires authorities to get a warrant before searching a home.

"If a meter reader comes to your house, if he has one of those stickers, I think you have an argument to keep him out, under the fourth amendment -- that he's been essentially deputized and is a police agent, and he needs a warrant to come into your house," Ratner said.

The Justice Department issued a statement on July 16 defending the project, as public concern spread. "None of the Operation TIPS materials published on the Web or elsewhere have made reference to entry or access to the homes of individuals," the statement said.

But for a program slated to begin within weeks, and expected to involve one million Americans, too many questions remain unanswered.

"I think it's going to hold back the attempt to prevent terrorism," Ratner said. "It's going to actually impede it, because it's going to put agents on all kinds of wild goose chases."

Justice department outsources tips program to fox television
Students getting paid to be informants { April 26 2005 }
The spy who reads your meter
Tips planning to recruit one in 24 { July 15 2002 }
Volunteer informant corps 1984

Files Listed: 6


CIA FOIA Archive

National Security
Support one-state solution for Israel and Palestine Tea Party bumper stickers JFK for Dummies, The Assassination made simple