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Jewish World Review August 5, 2002 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Sen. Pat Leahy vs. Big Brother's spies | It looked for a time that House Majority Leader Dick Armey had saved us from the Ashcroft-Bush Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program that would have sent millions of truckers, utility workers, meter readers and other service personnel to report "suspicious" behavior or other signs of terrorist-connected activity.

Armey removed from the Homeland Security Department bill this plan, characterized by constitutional lawyer John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, as "essentially turning the average citizen into an extension of the thought police."

This army of untrained informants, without any definition of "suspicious" or "terrorist" activity, would, as conservative Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr said, be involved in what "smacks of the very type of fascist or Communist government we fought so hard to eradicate in other countries in decades past."

The House passed its bill without Operation TIPS, but the Senate is still debating the measure. John Ashcroft, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was met with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch's concern that, "We don't want to see a '1984' Orwellian-type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors."

Ashcroft satisfied Hatch by saying that these vast reports by informants would not be logged into a Justice Department database. Ashcroft conceded, however, that the information would be sent to other law-enforcement agencies that could put the allegations into their databases. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the attorney general: "We could be vigilant, but we don't want to be vigilantes."

Leahy then sent a letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., head of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which is handling the Homeland Security Department bill, asking him to include in the Senate version Armey's prohibition on enacting the ubiquitous Operation TIPS. With its echoes of the neighborhood watch committees in Cuba, China and other anti-Democratic countries, I find it reckless that an attorney general of the United States could even advocate it.

Lieberman, not notably passionate about civil liberties -- like Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to whom the Leahy letter was also addressed -- ignored his colleague's attempt to prevent this country from forgetting why we are fighting terrorism here and abroad. On July 28, New York Times reporter Alison Mitchell accurately summarized the lessons of history that the Bush administration, Congress and the rest of us must heed:

"A central challenge a free society faces in countering terrorism is in maintaining its own character, protecting its citizens while preserving what makes the society worth protecting in the first place."

Prior to Ashcroft's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, David Carle, Leahy's press secretary, sent out a "News Backgrounder," which has been ignored by much of the press. Providing "a disturbing historical precedent for Operation TIPS," the report notes that in World War I, the "Department of Justice established the American Protective League (APL), which enrolled 250,000 citizens in at least 600 cities and towns" to enlist informants with wide access in their communities to report suspicious conduct and interrogate fellow citizens. "The APL spied on workers and unions in thousands of industrial plants with defense contracts, and organized raids on German-language newspapers."

Members of the APL, with the power to make arrests, "used such methods as tar and feathers, beatings, and forcing those who were suspected of disloyalty to kiss the flag." Said the New York Bar Association after the war, "No other cause contributed so much to the oppression of innocent men as the systematic and indiscriminate agitation against what was claimed to be an all-pervasive system of German espionage."

In September, when Congress returns, a conference committee of the House and Senate will decide the final language in the Homeland Security Department bill, including whether Operation TIPS will become law. Those of us who believe American citizens should not be spying on one another can let our representatives in the Senate know that we are committed to protecting our liberties both from terrorists and from Ashcroft's Justice Department.

Separate messages should be sent to Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, the nation's leaders in the Senate.

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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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