Commentary

Volunteer Voyeurs?

The Justice Department’s vague proposal for a legion of citizen-informants — Operation TIPS — didn’t get a warm reception when the DOJ floated the idea recently. Public outcry led House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) to try to kill Operation TIPS in his markup of the Homeland Security Department bill.

But it’s not dead yet. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on July 22, President Bush — Congress be damned — is going ahead with the program anyway. “The administration is continuing to pursue Operation TIPS,” confirmed Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock.

Why worry about Operation TIPS? What could possibly be wrong with what the DOJ calls “a national system for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity”? Several things, actually.

First, TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) appears to be designed to do an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, enlisting workers who have access to places that government agents can’t get to without a warrant. Second, it’s likely to waste law enforcement resources by requiring federal officials to follow up on millions of tips of dubious value. And third, it has the potential to degenerate into an unsavory network of volunteer voyeurs: a legion of self-selected busybodies helping the war on terror by spying on their neighbors.

An FBI agent needs a warrant to enter your house. Your cable provider does not. This may explain why, in its initial descriptions of the program, the DOJ made clear that it would recruit informants in jobs that give them unique access to private property, such as utility workers and letter carriers. (Interestingly, in the midst of public disapproval of the proposal, the administration revised the language on the Operation TIPS Web page, and removed the references to specific occupations.) Having gained entry to your property through trust and consent, TIPS informants will then be able to report on anything they deem suspicious. With the post-Watergate restrictions on domestic spying eroding in the name of fighting terror, who is to say what uses such information will be put to?

Moreover, the program will almost certainly waste federal agents’ time and taxpayers’ money. Thus far in the domestic war on terror, the main problem has not been a lack of information. Instead, red tape, lack of communication among the authorities, and misplaced law enforcement priorities have hampered the fight against Al Qaeda.

As has been reported, the Phoenix FBI office knew about Al Qaeda activity at U.S. flight schools prior to September 11 but could not get the Bureau’s main office in Washington, D.C. to take action. Agent Kenneth Williams’ memo about Bin Laden-ist pilots-in-training disappeared down a bureaucratic black hole. Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources, the FBI was engaged in an 18-month-long sting operation at a brothel in New Orleans that netted 12 prostitutes. While Al Qaeda was preparing for 9/11, federal law enforcement was down in the French Quarter acting like the local vice squad.

Plainly, federal authorities do not have their priorities straight and they have not developed clear lines of communication. They can’t even effectively follow up on tips from federal agents. How will that situation be improved by diverting personnel and resources to follow up on literally millions of tips from untrained citizen-informants?

Many TIPS critics have invoked the specter of the citizen-spy network set up by the East German Stasi. But it’s not necessary to go abroad for cautionary tales. During World War I, the Justice Department had its own corps of citizen spies, the American Protective League. The APL was a volunteer organization, some 250,000 strong, which worked closely with the Justice Department identifying potential “subversives.” When the APL couldn’t find enough German spies to keep busy, its members quickly turned to harassing labor organizers and turning in draft dodgers.

Will Operation TIPS become a latter-day version of the American Protective League? It’s hard to say. The Justice Department has been characteristically vague about the program, giving its officials plausible deniability whenever anyone expresses alarm. Recently, DOJ spokeswoman Barbara Comstock disingenuously professed her shock at the suggestion that TIPS is anything more than a 1-800 number for vigilant citizens.

But clearly, by focusing on workers with access to private places, the administration is aiming at something far more troubling. The program is ripe for abuse. Instead of spying on their neighbors, vigilant citizens should train a skeptical eye on initiatives like Operation TIPS.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.