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Operation Snoops.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The U.S. Postal Service made the right call last week in stamping "return to sender" on Attorney General John Ashcroft's program urging letter carriers, truck drivers, utility employees and other workers to spy on their fellow Americans and report "unusual or suspicious activity" to federal authorities.

Justice officials hope the Terrorist Information and Prevention System, known as Operation TIPS, will enlist millions of Americans whose jobs bring them into neighborhoods, homes, and businesses as snoops in the name of national security.

The program is part of President Bush's National Strategy for Homeland Security and is an arm of the Citizen Corps, which the president announced in his State of the Union address. Recruiting citizens to inform on fellow citizens and become tentacles of the government's intelligence services is a strategy that could have been lifted right out of the files of the former Soviet KGB or East German Stasi.

Those who argue that such comparisons are hyperbole would do well to recall similar programs enacted by the intelligence agencies of Eastern Bloc regimes. Letter carriers, truck drivers, utility employees and other workers - the same categories of citizens whom Ashcroft is recruiting - routinely reported "unusual behavior" to party bosses and government officials.

No, we're not comparing President Bush to Joseph Stalin or John Ashcroft to Erich Honecker. The White House clearly is responding to a very real threat of terrorist attack. But the domestic spy network that Bush and Ashcroft want to put in place - one that recruits volunteers whose occupations allow them to monitor citizens and even search people's homes without warrants - poses a real threat to the very civil liberties that make this nation worth protecting.

From a purely practical point of view, it's hard to imagine that TIPS program, which would flood federal investigators with tons of spurious "tips" from voyeuristic informants, would prove more of a help than a hindrance in this country's war against terrorism. It's also hard to imagine that such volunteers wouldn't engage in widespread racial profiling, focusing almost exclusively on people of Middle Eastern descent or other minorities.

Administration officials insist that the program doesn't have a whiff of vigilantism, that its participants would be strictly volunteer citizens doing their patriotic duty. If that's so, why not credit Americans with the common sense to voluntarily report suspected terrorist activities on their own? A truck driver needn't be an Operation TIPS informant to know that he should report a van filled with binocular-wielding passengers parked next to a nuclear plant.

The federal government should let citizens maintain vigilance as responsible citizens, not as an organized corps of informants. If there's any informing to be done, it should be Americans informing the White House and Congress that they want absolutely nothing to do with Operation TIPS.
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Title Annotation:Government should kill plan to recruit informers; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 22, 2002
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