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Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5762

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Protecting or persecuting citizens? | Washington "will do everything conceivable, everything humanly and technologically possible, to preserve our way of life and our citizens," says Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security.

Unfortunately, the administration seems ready to threaten our way of life in the name of protecting us. First, President George W. Bush wants a new Department of Homeland Security to consolidate everything from border control to emergency relief to agricultural inspections. Second, the Justice Department is preparing Operation TIPS, Terrorism Information and Prevention System. This is a curiously liberal approach -- create an intrusive new bureaucracy -- for a supposedly conservative president. Yet there is no reason to believe that another department will make America safer.

Obviously, inter-agency cooperation and coordination are desirable, but consolidation won't necessarily deliver either. The experience of the Transportation Security Administration gives little cause for optimism. The TSA was supposed to improve airport-employee quality, but instead retained most incumbents. The administration has already run through most of its more-than $2 billion budget, yet is likely to miss the statutory deadline for installing bomb-screening machines.

TIPS is an even worse idea. Obviously, citizens should be alert and report potentially dangerous activities. Most important, they should maintain security at their own homes and businesses, and offer the last line of defense against would-be airline hijackers. But orchestrating a massive spying operation by Americans on Americans is quite different. Snitches are unreliable: A decade ago, Harvard University's Project on Justice warned that informers routinely exaggerate and even fabricate. Many criminal convictions have been set aside after informants were exposed as liars.

Government spying during the Vietnam War era was directed more at suppressing dissent than protecting national security; the FBI's infamous Cointelpro program targeted Martin Luther King Jr., among others. During the Cold War, Washington directed much of its energy at people who, while moral idiots for backing the Soviet Union, never actually threatened America's survival.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, federal surveillance efforts seem to have accelerated. Charlotte Twight, author of "Dependent on DC" (Palgrave Press), warns that "largely linked through an individual's Social Security number, these [official] databases now empower the federal government to obtain an astonishingly detailed portrait of any person: the checks he writes, the types of causes he supports, what he says 'privately' to his doctor."

Washington demonstrated its readiness to misuse access to personal information when the IRS released the names of individuals using disputed tax shelters. Private snitches would be no better. World War I was notable for the demagogic abuse heaped upon so-called hyphenated Americans. More than a few "patriotic" citizens spied on their neighbors. That was better than in World War II, when Washington rounded up Japanese-Americans and confined them in camps. But it still wasn't much of an example for a constitutional republic based upon individual liberty.

The administration would eventually enlist 11 million people, particularly those with access to not only the public square, but private homes: postal employees, truck drivers, utility workers. These informants would report anything suspicious to the Justice Department.

Tom Ridge says that, "The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans." But that's precisely what TIPS would encourage, as well as offer a back-door means of avoiding constitutional limits on arrests and searches. Government could make it easier for people to report obviously suspicious behavior: Middle Eastern men seeking to learn how to fly, but not land, commercial airliners comes to mind. That invitation, however, should be made to every American, backed by a toll-free number staffed by personnel with some ability to separate wheat from chaff.

Unfortunately, deputizing meter readers and mail carriers to be federal agents will encourage them to look for things to report, without helping them develop critical judgment about what is and isn't significant. The result will be an avalanche of worthless tips. At best, federal computer drives would be filled with information on middle-aged males who own many guns, dark-complexioned men, who criticize U.S. Mideast policy, and women who dress in head scarves. At worst, the TIPS database would list the trivial actions and opinions of millions of Americans, such as the Stasi's files in former East Germany.

Homeland security is the federal government's most important duty. Washington should reconsider its high-profile meddling abroad, such as stationing thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. The United States should also focus on securing air and sea space at home rather than defending prosperous allies and patrolling irrelevant civil wars abroad.

But Uncle Sam shouldn't suborn citizens to become meddlesome busybodies and official gossips, encouraged to see a terrorist behind every eccentric neighbor. We must never forget that we are defending a free society, not just a particular plot of land located in North America.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


07/23/02: Shifting the risk to Uncle Sam
07/16/02: Fighting the patent wars
07/09/02: Getting that quota feeling
07/02/02: Teetering on the Democratic edge
06/25/02: Judicial litmus tests
06/18/02: Killer teeth?
06/11/02: Europeans defending whom?
05/24/02: Threatening pharmaceutical innovation
05/14/02: The war crimes fantasy
05/07/02: Paying a high price for befriending Saudi princes
04/30/02: The price of postal monopoly
04/23/02: The war on charity
04/16/02: The forgotten human right
03/27/02: Cuba's struggle to be free
03/20/02: How to defeat Cuban communism
03/12/02: Junk science, redux
03/06/02: Axis of hubris
02/27/02: Washington-style campaign reform: incumbent protection
02/20/02: The grand Enron morality play
02/12/02: Rebuilding what?
02/05/02: Succumbing to the terrorist temptation
01/29/02: Democrats for what?
01/22/02: The Iraqi question
01/14/02: Profiling frequent flyers
01/08/02: Trade, not aid
01/02/02: Treason by any other name
12/26/01: Preserving freedom in an unfree world
12/17/01: Dealing with terrorism's aftermath
12/10/01: Emerging friendships?
12/04/01: Uncle Sam: Insurer of last resort
11/28/01: Expanding the circle of trade
11/20/01: Free to be stupid
11/13/01: The meaning of compassion
11/07/01: Patriotic scoundrels
10/30/01: The coming postal raid
10/16/01: First, do no harm
10/12/01: Good news from a suffering land
10/04/01: Defending whom?
09/25/01: The wrong solution to the wrong problem
09/21/01: The price of terrorism
08/28/01: Uncle Sam's retirement scam
08/21/01: Canberra's quaint naivete
08/14/01: Uncle Sam's false fuel economy
08/08/01: The Clinton administration in drag
07/31/01: The high cost of government
07/24/01: Kill the campaign reform illusion
07/17/01: Do as I say, not as I do
07/11/01: Lawyers at play
07/05/01: Western blundering, Macedonian disaster
06/26/01: How best to honor Bill Clinton?
06/19/01: A maturing Europe?
06/15/01: Tell Beijing to mind its own business
06/06/01: Ukraine's boiling cauldron
05/31/01: Protecting privacy from Uncle Sam
05/22/01: America's Balkan quagmire
05/09/01: The Taiwanese flash point
05/01/01: Globalization serves the world's poor
04/24/01: Who's cheating whom?
04/10/01: The NCAA scam
04/03/01: Balkan stupidities
03/27/01: McCain doesn't want a 'risk for our country'
03/20/01: Dubious Korean alliances
03/06/01: Coercive patriotism
02/27/01: Bombing without end
02/20/01: A dose of misplaced outrage
02/13/01: Psst: Tax cuts for taxpayers. Pass-it-on
02/06/01: Bridging the unbridgeable gap
01/23/01: Left-wing demagoguery
01/16/01: The drug war problem
01/10/01: Politics and trade
01/03/01: Hope for liberty?
12/27/00: The debris of war
12/19/00: What's the rule of law for?
12/15/00: Ending silicone breast implant saga
12/05/00: Election may yield victor, but there are no winners
11/21/00: A Bush presidential mandate?
11/07/00: Exprienced Gore? Yeah, right
11/01/00: Interventionist follies
10/17/00: America's brightening prospects in Ukraine
10/11/00: GOP budget scandals
10/03/00: How a pharmaceutical 'crisis' was created
09/27/00: Clinton's empathy has helped nobody
09/13/00: AlGore's risky budget policies
09/05/00: Military readiness and Korean commitments
08/29/00: Let sleeping hypocrites lie
08/21/00: Targeting a journalistic pariah
08/15/00: European garrison for Kosovo?
08/08/00: Journalistic cleansing at the Boston Globe
08/04/00: Junk science on trial
06/22/00: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
06/15/00: The end of U.N. peacekeeping
06/07/00: The Clinton regulatory miasma
06/01/00: Administration stupidity, congressional cowardice
05/25/00: The silence of the international community
05/18/00: Protecting the next generation

05/11/00: Freer trade with China will advance human rights

05/04/00: How not to save the Constitution

04/28/00: American tripwire in Korea long ago disappeared: Why are we still involved?

04/18/00: Clinton administration believes the IRS is too gentle, wants more auditors

© 2002, Copley News Service