July 31, 2002 - The American Prospect: Volunteerism Goes Undercover:

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Volunteerism Goes Undercover:
The administration's Orwellian new initiative

Read and comment on this op-ed piece from the American Prospect on the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS), one of the sister organizations to the Peace Corps in the USA Freedom Corps at:

Volunteerism Goes Undercover:*

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Volunteerism Goes Undercover:
The administration's Orwellian new initiative.

By Jeremy Lott

Web Exclusive: 7.31.02

When President Bush called for the expansion of volunteerism via the USA Freedom Corps (a bloated version of President Clinton's AmeriCorps) in his State of the Union address, liberal commentators gave him a collective, if somewhat grudging, pat on the back. David Broder, so-called dean of the Washington press corps, called national volunteer service "an idea worth stealing" -- from the Democrats. Columnist Marianne Means enthused, "This is presidential leadership at its best."

But, while visions of Camelot danced in liberals' heads, the Bush administration appears to have had other ideas. Carefully tucked away among innocuous sounding proposals, such as tutoring inner-city children, was a potential ticking civil-liberties time bomb known as the Terrorist Information and Prevention System, or Operation TIPS for short.

The acronym, and the program it stands for, is remarkably un-spun. The TIPS Web site explains that the pilot program, which will be slowly "phased in across the country," will enlist the assistance of "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." These "volunteers" will become the eyes and ears of the federal government -- the first line of defense against an invisible terrorist threat.

Here the question of definition becomes both important and infuriating. Who are these "millions of American workers"? What is meant by "public places"? Define "potentially unusual or suspicious activity" in such a way that it doesn't include such arguably objectionable but legal activities as shuffling down the street in baggy pants or shorting telecom stocks. Does it matter that this program is being spearheaded by the Justice Department, which, irrespective of office holder, seems to care only very selectively about basic civil liberties?

If TIPS was being sold as a mere targeted version of 911 for reporting serious terrorist threats, as National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg has recently argued, reactions from opponents would have been much more muted. Who, after all, could disagree with people "call[ing] the government when they see someone sketchy sniffing around a chemical plant or a reservoir"?

Instead, TIPS has been denounced and ridiculed by people from all walks of life (and all over the political map). Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) worried that "we are being transformed from an information society to an informant society." Blogger Steve Himmer launched a parody site called Operation RATS ("Retrograde Activities and Treachery System"), a "national system for paranoid nuts to report neighbors they don't like." Reason magazine's Brian Doherty was less sanguine. He complained that the country is "lousy with new 'corps' these days" and lamented that "they aren't even trying to pretend anymore." Operation TIPS amounts, in his estimation, to "an American Stasi."

That dour assessment may be wildly overblown, completely unjustified, even scandalously irresponsible. Or it may be right on the money and, therefore, genuine cause for one hell of an eardrum-shattering alarm. We don't know yet, and that's the way the government wants it.

The problem is that the Justice Department has been playing its cards far too close to the vest. As Bill Berkowitz pointed out in his regular column for WorkingForChange.com, the department has been keeping largely mum until the planned launch of the program in August. Questions regarding the ultimate scope of TIPS -- what uses it will be put toward and which, if any, civil-rights safeguards will it implement? -- have the American Civil Liberties Union worried that the feds will use TIPS volunteers to get around Fourth Amendment restrictions on unauthorized searches. The ACLU also wonders how the government will keep TIPS from becoming an avenue for citizens to pursue private grievances all remain unanswered. Meanwhile, the constant refrain of the too-few stories that have been written about TIPS is that "spokesmen from the Justice Department were not available for comment."

TIPS could, theoretically, turn out to be, if not innocuous, much less nakedly Orwellian than it sounds. But several lawmakers aren't buying the program on the good faith and credit of the Justice Department. House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas), for one, bristling at both the potential civil-liberties fallout and the Justice Department's lack of candor about what exactly are the purposes and limits of the program, stripped funding from the House version of homeland-security legislation (sometimes those ACLU Republicans come in handy).

However, there's still the Senate version to go, and the Justice Department has committed itself, by hook or by crook, to set up some version of this program. ACLU legislative counsel Rachel King likes "the direction [lawmakers] are going in" but worries that either the Senate will pass a homeland bill with anti-TIPS language far less stringent than Armey's, or that the Justice Department will weasel around it anyway, by altering the name and making some cosmetic changes.

Unless Tom Ridge and George W. Bush have a sudden change of heart, TIPS could very well happen -- either this year or next. Even a stripped back "pilot" form of the program could be formidable and would likely grow with time; there have already been talks of merging TIPS with "Neighborhood Watch" programs. The Teamsters and Longshoremen unions have already agreed to do their patriotic duty and keep an eye open for the scoundrels.

The possibility of future terrorist attacks should be taken seriously. But in the unfortunate but necessary tradeoffs between security and freedom, the latter should be given real weight. There are several possible remedies -- from FBI reform to better data sharing among intelligence agencies -- that would enable better detection of known terrorists without attempting to turn millions of Americans into unpaid snitches and continually reminding the rest of us of 1984's dystopian vision.

Jeremy Lott

Copyright © 2002 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Jeremy Lott, "Volunteerism Goes Undercover: The administration's Orwellian new initiative.," The American Prospect Online, July 31, 2002. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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