- Opposition to the Patriot Act, legislation passed by
Congress and signed by the President last year, is growing. Americans are
beginning to understand that many precious liberties have been put in jeopardy
by the government's rush to enact new laws in the wake of September 11th.
Federal law enforcement agencies now have broad authority to conduct secret,
warrantless searches of homes; monitor phone and internet activity; access
financial records; and undertake large-scale tracking of American citizens
through huge databases. We're told this is necessary to fight the unending
war on terror, but in truth the federal government has been seeking these
powers for years. September 11th simply provided an excuse to accelerate
the process and convince all of us to relinquish more and more of our privacy
to the federal government.
- Now the Justice department wants to extend the new investigative
powers to private citizens. It recently unveiled Operation TIPS ñ
Terrorism Information and Prevention System ñ as part of President
Bush's 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 don't
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, you're 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 ñ that citizen
spy programs are incompatible with a free society ñ invites denunciations
and sharp reminders that "we're 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.
- Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what kind of society
we hope to leave our children and grandchildren. A civilized and free society
would not be discussing, much less seriously debating, any proposal to
enlist private citizens to act as federal neighborhood snitches.