Commentary

United We Stand, but We’ll Snoop Divided

This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2002.

Thankfully, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) is trying to prevent the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS program, from being included in the homeland security bill.

Armey has the right idea. TIPS is crafted to transform us into a nation of meddlers and snoops.

The administration plans to recruit a million volunteers by next month to serve as government informants in 10 test cities. If the plan works, the goal is to enroll 4% of Americans, or about 11 million domestic spies across the nation. Evidently, the focus would be on truck drivers, cable installers, utility employees and others whose jobs regularly take them to a variety of places. (Bush wanted letter carriers to participate, but the Postal Service has declined.) According to reports, the government recruits would be well-positioned to recognize suspect activities. Never mind that your typical delivery driver or utility worker possesses neither the experience nor the expertise to judge what might be considered suspicious.

Despite that, the new breed of federal informant would identify potential mischief and potential mischief-makers, then report directly to the Justice Department, where all that information would be stored in a central database—yet another database containing names of people who have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and his staff would, 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 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. 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 11 million.

Instead, the Justice Department would 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 would be apt to prevail. We would soon have meter readers on our property supposedly doing what we expect them to do; yet they might then rummage around our private residences and file a report with the Justice Department on anything they deemed 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 4th Amendment concerns, but it comes pretty close. What’s worse, the program almost certainly wouldn’t work. In fact, it probably would be counterproductive. With limited resources to battle terrorism, federal, state and local authorities definitely don’t need an avalanche of worthless tips to ferret through to find maybe a nugget of useful information somewhere in the heap.

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 utility worker in to spot the latest weaponry. That means the meter readers and cable installers would, for the most part, be observing ordinary Americans doing ordinary things.

The fear is that more zealous or malevolent informants would somehow find a national security risk lurking behind everyday conduct—an assessment that would 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.

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