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Jewish World Review July 29, 2002 / 20 Menachem-Av, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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How we were saved from 'Big Brothers' | In China, Cuba, and other countries where dissent to government policies is dangerous, local watch committees in neighborhoods there monitor signs of disloyalty to the state. It almost happened here in the name of homeland defense.

As our government's Citizens Corps Web site ( reported in July, we were about to experience similar continual surveillance under "Operation TIPS, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice ... a national system for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity." A program that will "involve the 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."

In May, the same Web site detailed who would be watching over us in this nationwide operation: "millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others" will be part of the "pilot program that will be selected in 10 cities." Had this been approved, it would have been enacted this August.

Each watcher would have a toll-free number that "connected directly to a hotline -- routing calls to the proper law enforcement agency or other responding organizations."

In "1984," George Orwell wrote of a government run by the all-seeing "Big Brother." I have no doubt there are terrorist "sleepers" among us; but Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush had yet to tell us -- as Operation TIPS was about to get underway -- how the Justice Department was going to instruct its millions of informants on the definition "suspicious terrorist activity."

Before Dick Armey, a vigilant Republican House leader, stopped -- for now -- Operation TIPS, as JWR'S Zev Chafets warned us in his in his July 17 New York Daily News column what the return of "Big Brother" could mean as our Constitution was being amended without consultation by Congress, and without the vote of the citizenry. Chafets, a hardliner on national security, after his years in the Israeli government, pointed out:

"Once TIPS gets going people can drop a dime on anyone -- farmers with barrels of fertilizer in their trucks, stock boys with box cutters, the loud neighbor next door. Who is to say they don't merit investigation?"

Ellen Sorokin reported in The Washington Times on July 19, "House Majority Leader Dick Armey, in his markup of legislation to create a Homeland Security Department ... scrapped a program that would use volunteers in domestic surveillance." And before that, the Postal Service refused to allow its letter carriers to participate in Operation TIPS. The Postal Service deserves our appreciation.

Armey, a conservative, merits the Liberty Medal for reminding Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge (a supporter of Operation TIPS) that, as the president has said all along and sometimes forgets, everything we do for national security must be within the bounds of the Constitution. "Citizens," Armey said recently on NBC's "Meet The Press," "should not be spying on one another."

In evaluating the 216-page bill creating a Homeland Security Department, Armey also rejected a national identification card, which the president advocates, saying that the "Authority to design and issue these cards shall remain with the states." More important, he added that, "The use of biometric identifiers and Social Security numbers with these cards is not consistent with a free society."

"Mr. Armey's bill," Sorokin wrote, "also would create a 'privacy officer' in the Homeland Security Department, which he said was the first ever established by law in a Cabinet agency. Mr. Armey said this person would 'ensure technology research and new regulations from the [Homeland Security] Department [and would] respect the civil liberties our citizens enjoy.'"

How close we came to being watched by a network of officially designated domestic spies puts in question -- not for the first time -- the judgment of Ashcroft, Ridge and Bush when it comes to protecting our fundamental liberties. Operation TIPS' full name was the Terrorism Information and Prevention System. We do need such a system -- but we need one conducted by professional law-enforcement people trained in detecting terrorist-related activity.

The new "privacy officer" in the Homeland Security Department is a useful first step, but Congress has to be much more vigilant in guarding our Constitutional liberties from further raids by the Justice Department, its FBI and its boss: Attorney General John Ashcroft. Disturbed reactions around the country to Operation TIPS should remind the attorney general that we Americans are watching him.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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