Tipping Off the Government

Just how ominous is the federal government's program to recruit citizens to act as eyes and ears in the war against terrorism?

The Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) is one facet of the Citizen Corps project announced by President Bush in his State of the Union Address this year. It focuses, particularly, on people whose jobs let them observe the daily flow of commerce – postal workers, dock workers, and train conductors, for example.

Theoretically, such folks would spot anything suspiciously out of the ordinary and report it on hotlines provided by the government. Local police, or possibly federal agents, would then investigate.

The theory will be tested later this summer, when the Justice Department hopes to have about 1 million TIPS volunteers ready for action.

Now back to that question. Is this an ominous move toward police-state informer networks, or a common-sense way of using citizens to augment the capabilities of law enforcement?

Citizen eyes and ears are already allied with law enforcement wherever neighborhood watch groups are active. The difference here is the national scope of the project, and the awareness that what's being prevented could be a major terrorist attack, not just an average crime.

The government has assured critics it doesn't intend to use TIPS recruits – say, phone repairmen – to spy on what's going on inside private homes. That, clearly, would violate constitutional protections.

A potential problem could be a deluge of reports from well-meaning recruits newly sensitive to anything unusual or suspicious. Worse, some people could participate from the wrong motives, concocting tips intended to hurt others. There's also the strong possibility that suspicions will rest disproportionately on anyone who's "Arab-looking."

Workers taking the TIPS calls will have to be sharp to separate valid reports from questionable ones.

Still, this attempt to enlist wider citizen participation in a sometimes amorphous but very serious war is worth trying. The most important front, after all, is right here in the US, where future attacks might be attempted.

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