Could a person who thinks you are "unusual" brand you as a suspected terrorist?
Yes, under a federal surveillance program that encourages Americans to be snitches and vigilantes, say civil liberties groups, the postal workers union and the House of Representatives.
The program is Operation TIPS, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System. The Justice Department has been developing it for months as part of the Bush administration's Citizen Corps, whose federal web site describes TIPS in this way: "A national system for concerned workers to report suspicious activity."
The civil liberties lobby raised the specter of federal agencies using the eyes and ears of the cable guy and others with special access to private property to circumvent court approvals of wiretaps and search warrants. The alarm was sounded across the political landscape.
Before the House left for the August recess, it included a section banning TIPS in its bill to establish a Department of Homeland Security. There is no comparable provision in the current Senate bill, which will be reworked after Labor Day, when the Senate returns to Capitol Hill.
In the "Chairman's Mark" ? the statement of the House Homeland Security Committee that sent the bill to the House floor ? the section prohibiting TIPS was described as, "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."
That committee chairman is Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, President George W. Bush's fellow Republican and Texan, who will retire to their home state in a few months, at the end of the 107th Congress.
Some Democrat leaders in the Senate are content to let the Republican-led House take the blame or praise for eliminating TIPS and want the Senate to remain silent on the program. Others would like to share in the credit for killing it. Still others and more than a few Republican senators are open to having a watered-down TIPS.
Many senators, like many of their House counterparts, are in a pitched battle with Justice over who leaked the documents to the press that the spy agencies leaked to lay blame on each other for intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11.
While the FBI is polygraphing dozens of congressional members and staffers, Justice and the White House are scrambling to salvage what they can of TIPS and to build a Homelands agency without union help or civil service rules.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 25 that TIPS was intended to gather information from public places, not private homes. Justice spokespersons say the administration never intended to enlist postal and utility workers as tipsters. But, it was the government's own web site that fueled public concern about TIPS.
Until July, the Citizen Corps site called TIPS a "nationwide program giving millions of American truckers, letter carriers, ship captains, utility employees and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity." The specific reference to letter carriers was what prompted the postal workers union to speak out against TIPS before the House vote.
The web site now says, "Operation TIPS will be launched in late summer or early fall and will be a national reporting system for volunteer industry workers to report suspicious and unusual behavior. The program will involve the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places."
At present, the site states that TIPS "offers a way for these workers to report what they see in public areas and along transportation routes." Once characterized as a "clearinghouse," the web site currently emphasizes that TIPS "is not a national 911 center" and that information reported on the hotline or online "will be referred electronically to a point of contact in each state as appropriate."
In attempting to remold TIPS to allay fears about the anti-terrorism program, its promoters have created a shapeless blob. Somewhere in the pile is an ok idea. The Coast Guard needs help and who better to lend a hand than sailors and dock workers? This is the kind of thing that agencies fighting the war to prevent terror attacks can do already.
In fact, the Citizen Corps web site says, "Justice is discussing participation with several industry groups whose workers are ideally suited to help in the anti-terrorism effort because their routines allow them to recognize unusual events and have expressed a desire for a mechanism to report these events to authorities."
If work is underway, why have TIPS at all? How does the new, improved TIPS achieve a better reporting mechanism by rerouting concerned callers to state contacts?
Most of the Citizen Corps programs are commendable. Neighborhood Watch groups, Community Emergency Response Teams and the Medical Reserve Corps are all good ideas. I'm not so sure about VIPS (Volunteer in Police Service) for one of the reasons I don't like TIPS ? law enforcement is no place for amateurs.
Even the professionals can and do botch the job. The last thing they need is to baby-sit wannabe cops and spies.
Americans already have ways of reporting suspicious or unusual activity and have a stake in preventing terror attacks. Since the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, people are much more aware and watchful. Perhaps this will have the desired effect of deterring acts of terrorism. We shall see.
If we are not very careful and contemplative, it is likely to produce more racial and ethnic profiling.
What's unusual or suspicious to one person may be ordinary or innocuous to others.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, callers jammed emergency lines with reports of suspicious behavior. Police in Washington, D.C., said at the time that most calls were along the lines of this: "Arab at 7-Eleven."
At a time when many Americans can't tell the difference between Indian people and sports mascots, it's a bit much to expect that everyone will have the most discerning eye or the greatest powers of observation.
The answer is not for Americans to make snap judgments about each other, but for the federal and local law enforcement agencies to work with each other to catch the bad guys. They also need to safeguard against destroying lives and careers of innocent people because of bad information, and to get good people out of the system if they don't belong in it.
I just went back to the Citizen Corps web site and tried to enter the door marked, "Join Now!" My computer's security system flashed a warning: "The security certificate was issued by a company you have not chosen to trust. The name on the security certificate does not match the name of the site."
Now, that sounds mighty suspicious and unusual to me. I should report it to someone. Where is that number for the Department of Sketchy Things?
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.