Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 /21 Menachem-Av 5762

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Consumer Reports

A common sense tip on internal snooping | Hearing Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft defend the government's new Operation TIPS program on Capitol Hill, I marvel at his ability to make an idea that might be quite useful sound quite sinister.

That thought occurs to me as Ashcroft sounds surprised at the bipartisan backlash that has greeted Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System).

Now being developed by the Justice Department in coordination with other agencies, TIPS will be one of five components of the Citizen Corps that President Bush announced in his State of the Union Address.

TIPS "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," the Web site explains.

All of which sounds to many of us a lot like an effort to enlist the nation's nosy neighbors into President Bush's "war on terror," which is how the president sometimes refers to his "war on terrorism." Maybe the war is being expanded to block any more "Halloween" movie sequels.

As word about TIPS has gotten around, the predictable alarm from the American Civil Liberties Union has been all but drowned out by similar distress expressed by conservative Republicans like Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

On July 18, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) added language to the House version of the Homeland Security Bill to prohibit the Justice Department from setting up Operation TIPS.

To help salvage the program in the Senate, Ashcroft assured senators last week that TIPS will serve only as a "clearinghouse" for information which will then be passed through to appropriate law enforcement agencies, each of which has well-established policies on the handling of information.

Details of the plan are still being worked out and that, dear reader, is part of the problem. I don't think TIPS would have aroused nearly as much suspicion had the administration let the public in on it sooner.

After all, this is a program that requires public cooperation in order to work. As such, a proposal that is this deeply intrusive into our daily lives should be openly discussed and debated, perhaps with town-hall meetings. Instead, the administration has shown an obsession for secrecy, which only arouses suspicion.

When I first heard about TIPS, I was reminded of Fidel Castro's Cuba, which I visited for the first time in June. One of the other American journalists with whom I was traveling remarked on our third day in Havana, "Have you noticed how this police state does not seem to have that many police?"

It was true. I usually see more cops in downtown Chicago or Washington. But that's the joy of an efficient police state, I added. They don't need a lot of police to spy on the people because the government puts people to work spying on each other.

In Cuba, local chapters of the Committee in Defense of the Revolution prevent crime the same way neighborhood-watch programs do in American neighborhoods. Criminals abhor a big audience. Police can't be everywhere, so the more eyes and ears they have in a community, the easier it is to spot unusual activity, including criminal activity, and put the culprits in jail.

But, of course, CDR watchdogs also report to higher authorities any activities of citizens, inside or outside of their own homes, that seem inconsistent with the principles of the revolution.

"You always know someone is listening," an independent Cuban journalist told me after his personal computers were confiscated.

CDR snooping is not the American way. Americans have known for years that we could cut crime considerably by imposing a police state, but we also have decided that the price was not worth it.

Is it worth it now? I doubt it, but that doesn't mean the federal government can't build a more efficient system for those of us who do spot something truly suspicious to report the information.

Instead of building an elaborate network of volunteer spies, the government should simply publish a toll-free phone number for all of us to use.

Like any other hotline, it would require careful screening to separate legitimate tips from the trash. But, unlike the more elaborate TIPS plan, a simple hotline would not be a radical departure from the sort of local crime-watch programs Americans already have.

That's my tip. I hope the government makes good use of it.

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