Jewish World Review July 22, 2002/ 13 Menachem-Av, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Terror-fighting tip from North Korea | Here's one of the best TIPS of a rough week for the White House: Sometimes the best-laid plans of a bureaucracy demonstrate only that bureaucrats have too much time on their hands.

TIPS is the acronym for something to be called the Terrorism Information and Prevention System. It could be called the Government Office of Omnipresent Futility, or GOOF. It's a bonehead idea, modeled on a system that once worked very well in the old Soviet Union and still works in North Korea, to recruit a nation of snoops.

The idea - as Dave Barry might say, we're not making this up - is to recruit a million truckers, mail carriers, utility workers, chambermaids and others whose jobs make them privy to the intimate secrets of Americans, to collect gossip and other trivia and turn it in to Washington. This gossip will go into a central database at the Justice Department, which in turn will make it available to your friendly neighborhood cops, to use as they see fit.

Who knows? Some of the "information" might lead to a terrorist, or at least to a good domestic scrap, with lots of flying lamps, broken dishes and even the occasional black eye and smashed nose. This will be a bonanza for suspicious wives and jealous husbands. No wonder Congress is trying to drive a stake through the the notion.

Organized snoophood will open vast new vistas of neighborhood strife. If your neighbor's dog is always digging up the pansies despite your most earnest representations to the neighbor, here's your big chance for revenge. Just call your local TIPS office and tell them that you think you saw a copy of the Koran on his coffee table. Of course it might have been the Saturday Evening Post, a Martha Stewart cookbook or even a Gideon Bible, you can't be sure. But by the time it all gets sorted out, the dog will be dead of old age.

Not every tipster - the government hopes eventually to recruit 4 percent of the population, or 11 million such domestic spies - will be qualified to know what to look for. That's all right. The government's security agencies are accustomed to dealing with raw data, and a good thing, because they're going to get a lot of it. But sometimes even the trained government security agent isn't necessarily Dick Tracy, or even Feerless Fosdick. I was once interviewed by agents conducting a background check on a young man of my acquaintance who had been hired by a Senate committee entrusted with national secrets.

"We've learned that he once lived outside the United States for four consecutive years," the agent told me. He checked something in his notebook. "That would have been 1952 through 1956."

Yes, I replied. That sounds about right. Those were approximately the years when his father was the ambassador of the United States in that country.

"But why would he have spent four consecutive years abroad? Do you have any idea what he was doing there?"

Well, those would have been the years when he was between 2 and 6 years old. His parents, being old-fashioned folk, probably insisted that he live with them.

"I see," the agent replied, and made more notes.

Naturally, the government means well. It always does. In Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, the most dreaded words a citizen is likely ever to hear are these: "We're from the government, and we're here to help."

Tom Ridge, the chief of homeland security, told a radio reporter: "The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans. That's just not what this president is all about." A spokeswoman for the Justice Department insists: "None of the Operations TIPS material [makes] reference to entry or access to the homes of individuals, nor has it ever been the intention of the Department of Justice, or any other agency, to set up such a program. Our interest in establishing the Operation TIPS program is to allow American workers to share information they receive in the regular course of their jobs in public places and areas."

This is argle-bargle. If the administration doesn't want Americans spying on Americans, and if this is not what this president is about, it shouldn't establish programs to enable Americans to spy on Americans, and if, as the Justice Department spokesman insists, it's not the intent of TIPS to deal in information gleaned from "entry or access" to American homes, then why establish a program to do exactly that?

The Postal Service, which can't deliver the mail, has already told the government to include it out. Utility companies are likely to say no thanks, too. Participation in such a program is an engraved invitation to lawsuits. You can bet that dozens of trial lawyers are drooling at their prospects. Doesn't that say enough already?

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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