For nearly ten months, civil libertarians have warned that Americans' constitutional rights are being sacrificed in the name of the post-Sept. 11 push for improved national security. Now, a broad array of rights activists are attacking a Bush administration plan they claim would prod postal workers, utility employees and others to spy on their fellow citizens.
The Justice Department appears to be backing away from earlier, more aggressive and detailed descriptions of the program, known as Operation TIPS, but groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild claim the information-gathering initiative still represents a potential threat to Americans' civil rights.
"They certainly could use individuals who are participating in Operation TIPS to go into somebody's home using a good ruse, a good story and collect information without a proper search warrant, without a proper subpoena or court ordered warrant," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, California.
The program, part of the Citizen Corps initiative introduced by President Bush in his State of the Union speech, has been described by federal officials as nothing more than a "national system for reporting suspicious, and potentially terrorist-related activity."
In an earlier press release, federal officials announced that the initiative would enlist as many as one million truck drivers, letter carriers, utility workers, train conductors, ship captains and other "well positioned" private citizens.
"The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned peeping toms," ACLU Legislative Counsel Rachel King said in a written statement early this week. Like other civil libertarians, King is concerned that the program will allow federal officials to skirt the laws requiring law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant or subpoena before launching an investigation or search.
In the face of that criticism, the US Postal Service has announced it will not participate in Operation TIPS and at least one influential Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has said he wants a clear accounting of the plan's objectives.
Amid the controversy, the Bush administration has tempered its language. The most recent description of the program, available on the Citizen Corps web site, no longer mentions the recruitment of postal workers, utility employees or others who might have regular access to people's homes. And Justice Department officials are taking pains to insist the program was never intended to encourage Americans to spy on their fellow citizens.
"None of the Operation TIPS material published on the web or elsewhere have made 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," says Justice Dept. spokeswoman Barbara Comstock in a written statement. "Our interest in establishing Operation Tips program is to allow American workers to share information they receive in the regular course of their jobs in the public places and areas."
Comparing Operation TIPS to non-governmental reporting programs such as Highway Watch, River Watch, and Coast Watch, Comstock, insists that TIPS is merely a way for volunteers to report unusual events noted during the course of their work. However, as Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the ACLU's Northern California chapter points out, Americans have always had the right to report suspicious activty to police or even federal authorities. The alarming aspect of Operation TIPS, she says, is the lack of any clear accountability or guidelines about how that information will be used.
"That's what's wrong throughout many of the expanded proposals to give law enforcement more power since September 11. All consistently lack the necessary checks and balances that ordinarily are required under law," Ehrlich argues. "So you don't have judicial oversight, you don't have the requirement that certain kinds of standards be met in order for a subpoena to be issued."
Riva Enteen, San Francisco program director for the National Lawyers Guild, says those statutory checks and balances are particularly important when suspects are being reported for possible terrorist activities.
"To report someone for terrorist activity, these days, means potential deportation, means incarceration without access to an attorney without charges," Enteen says. "It's a qualitative difference to somebody who might be fishing off the coast without a license. We're talking about people's liberty being at stake if they are tagged terrorists."
It is unclear whether civil libertarians will mount any preemptive legal challenge to Operation TIPS. Legal experts at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., say there is nothing unlawful or unconstitutional about the plan. But they and other civil libertarians warn that the program poses a serious ethical question for the federal government, treading dangerously close to the fine line separating a democracy's need for reasonable security from totalitarianism.
"The notion that you would actually encourage people who are not empowered or trained to do so, to snoop on their fellow citizens and report [on] them is particularly spooky," says Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "There seems to be no limits, no controls, no guidelines, no rules, no nothing.