Opposition 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.
Now 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.
This 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.
If a 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.
I 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.
Ultimately, 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.