Commentary

I Spy

This article orinally appeared in the National Review Online on July 18th, 2002.

TIPS, or Terrorism Information and Prevention System, is the latest brainchild of the Bush administration in the war against terrorism. If the media accounts are to believed, TIPS is crafted to transform us into a nation of meddlers, busybodies, and snoops — each of us spying on the rest. By next month, the administration plans to recruit a million volunteers to serve as government informants in ten test cities. If the plan works, the goal is to enroll four percent of all Americans, or about eleven million domestic spies across the nation.

Evidently, the focus will be on truckers, mail carriers, utility employees, and others whose jobs take them to a variety of places. But those same jobs often allow access to private homes, and that concerns civil libertarians. According to press reports, the government recruits will be well positioned to recognize suspect activities. Never mind that your typical letter carrier or utility worker — with all due respect to both professions — possesses neither the experience nor the expertise to pass judgment on what might be considered suspicious. Despite that, the new breed of federal informants is going to identify potential mischief and potential mischief-makers, then report directly to the Justice Department, where all that information will be stored in a central database — yet another database containing names of persons who have not been charged with any wrongdoing. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his staff will, in turn, make the database available to state and local authorities, for who knows what purpose.

The administration has been quick to disavow any intent to deputize a pack of private moles. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge told radio reporters, “The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans. That’s just not what the president is all about, and not what the TIPS program is all about.” And Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock insisted that “None of the Operations TIPS materials … made reference to entry or access to the homes of individuals; nor has it ever been the intention of the Department of Justice, or any other agency, to set up such a program. Our interest in establishing the Operation TIPS program is to allow American workers to share information they receive in the regular course of their jobs in public places and areas.”

Perhaps so. But if the administration merely seeks more and better information from diligent citizens, then why not simply publish a phone number where questionable behavior can be reported? That would reach 285 million Americans, not just a paltry eleven million. Instead, the Justice Department will identify a special cohort of citizens who are presumably able to perform investigative work that the rest of us aren’t positioned or equipped to perform. The administration’s motives may indeed be pure. But the law of unintended consequences is apt to prevail. We will soon have meter readers entering our homes, supposedly to do what we expect them to do, then rummaging around our private residences only to file a report with the Justice Department about anything they deem questionable. If police officers wanted to do the same thing, they’d have to convince a judge or magistrate that there was probable cause to issue a search warrant. TIPS may not raise Fourth Amendment concerns, but it comes pretty close.

What’s worse, the program almost certainly won’t work. In fact, it is more likely to be counterproductive. With limited resources to battle terrorists, federal, state, and local authorities definitely don’t need an avalanche of worthless tips. Maybe there will be a nugget or two of useful information somewhere in the heap. But law-enforcement officials won’t ever get to the nuggets without wading through the rubbish. Naturally, that’s not to say citizens should keep it to themselves when they observe suspect behavior in plain view. But the answer isn’t a legion of federal emissaries serving essentially as undercover agents. Terrorists are not stupid. They will not invite a letter carrier in to spot the latest weaponry. That means the meter readers and letter carriers will, for the most part, be observing ordinary Americans doing ordinary things. The fear is that more zealous or malevolent informants will somehow find a national-security risk lurking behind everyday conduct — an assessment that will occasionally be driven by outright prejudice or personal vendetta.

Every 20th-century dictator appointed civilian armies to watch over their neighbors. The Bush administration would do well not to follow in those footsteps. We can do without block fuhrers — a spy on every street corner.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.