to the Patriot Act, legislation passed by Congress and signed by the
President last year, is growing. Americans are beginning to understand
that many precious liberties have been put in jeopardy by the government's
rush to enact new laws in the wake of September 11th. Federal law
enforcement agencies now have broad authority to conduct secret, warrantless
searches of homes; monitor phone and internet activity; access financial
records; and undertake large-scale tracking of American citizens through
huge databases. We're told this is necessary to fight the unending
war on terror, but in truth the federal government has been seeking
these powers for years. September 11th simply provided an excuse to
accelerate the process and convince all of us to relinquish more and
more of our privacy to the federal government.
the Justice department wants to extend the new investigative powers
to private citizens. It recently unveiled Operation TIPS Terrorism
Information and Prevention System as part of President Bush's
Citizen Corps initiative. The goal is to enlist thousands or even
millions of Americans to act as spies for the government, reporting
suspicious activity to officials using a handy toll-free hotline.
The Justice department especially hopes to enlist mailmen, delivery
drivers, plumbers, gas-meter readers, and the like, as they have access
to private homes and businesses in their daily work. As usual, the
war on terror is offered as justification for this proposal.
almost might be funny if it were not real. Imagine the rampant abuses
possible with a national spy program. Busybodies across the country
will clamor to join the effort and act as self-appointed neighborhood
vigilantes. Unscrupulous individuals of every stripe will abuse the
program by snitching on ex-spouses, personal enemies, and racial groups
they don't like. Bickering neighbors will enjoy calling in to
report unkempt lawns and barking dogs as sure signs of nefarious activity.
I certainly hope the Justice department employs some very patient
people to field the flood of useless calls.
government-sponsored snitch program sounds pretty bad to you, you're
not alone. Some commentators draw parallels between Operation TIPS
and the citizen informants of the former East German Stasi secret
police. Of course, suggesting the obvious that citizen spy programs
are incompatible with a free society invites denunciations and sharp
reminders that "we're at war." Remember, however, that
wars have been used throughout modern history to justify rapid expansion
of state power at the expense of personal liberty. We cannot remain
free if we allow the endless, undeclared war on terror to serve as
an excuse for giving up every last vestige of our privacy.
applaud Congressman Dick Armey for adding a provision to the homeland
security bill that would prohibit the Justice department from implementing
the TIPS program. His opposition brings needed public attention to
this terrible idea. But even if Congress supports him, there is no
guarantee another informant proposal will not surface soon thereafter.
Congressional oversight of administrative agencies (consider the Treasury
department and its renegade IRS) is nonexistent. The Justice department
almost certainly will seek another way to implement the program, with
or without congressional approval.
we have to ask ourselves what kind of society we hope to leave our
children and grandchildren. A civilized and free society would not
be discussing, much less seriously debating, any proposal to enlist
private citizens to act as federal neighborhood snitches.