Snitch USA

Bush-Ashcroft Plan for Millions of Snoops and Spies

Revolutionary Worker #1161, August 4, 2002, posted at

“The imperialists have set things in motion that can't be easily reversed, and may not be easily controlled. And we can say with a great deal of certainty that at the end of all this—whenever and however what has been set in motion is finally resolved—things are bound to be and will be vastly different, not only internationally, but also within what has been the United States. Whether in a very terrible way, or in a very positive way in terms of the advance of the proletarian revolution worldwide, and perhaps even getting to the point where power is seized by the masses of the people in the U.S. itself—things will be radically different and the America we have known will not exist in the same way anymore.”

Bob Avakian, Chairman of Revolutionary Communist Party,USA


"If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it. This is a way to organize that which already happens in our communities on a daily basis and a way to make the homeland more secure and more prepared."

President George W. Bush, announcing Operation TIPS, April 8

"Every participant will be given an Operation TIPS information sticker to be affixed to the cab of their vehicle or placed in some other public location so that the toll-free reporting number is readily available. Everywhere in America, a concerned worker can call a toll-free number and be connected directly to a hotline routing calls to the proper law enforcement agency."

Operation TIPS website

"This is a program where people's activities, statements, posters in their windows or on their walls, nationality, and religious practices will be reported by untrained individuals without any relationship to criminal activity."

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's national office

"Hi! Meterman! I'm here to read your meter-- and your bookshelves."

John Ashcroft's vision of future government surveillance

The U.S. government's latest plan is simple and straightforward. It is breathtaking in its scope. It is very revealing in its extremism and its naked love of police power. And it is, of course, proposed in the name of "preventing terrorism."

The Justice Department has launched Operation TIPS (short for "Terrorism Information and Prevention System"). Their goal is to develop a national network of police informants--millions of them--to be the eyes and ears of the government all through society. The government is working actively to recruit people whose jobs have them out and around during the day--truckers, train conductors, utility employees, telephone workers, letter carriers, and ship captains. Bush himself said in a Knoxville speech on April 8: "If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it. This is a way to organize that which already happens in our communities on a daily basis and a way to make the homeland more secure and more prepared."

Besides 1984, this really calls to mind the Salem Witch Trials. Now, if for example some repairman thinks a book you have in your home might be "anti-American" you will be put on a government list of potential "terrorists" and possibly also visited by the FBI (or some other representative of "Homeland Security"). Who will ever look the same at these kinds of people who come to their home, who will ever feel comfortable around them any more? How will you know if the meter reader is who they say they are--or if they are a government agent lurking around for anything "suspicious"? And let's not fail to recognize that the announcement of such a program will provide the state with a way to send its agents in the guise of utility workers--as well as using them as snoops and snitches--and to create an atmosphere where the government will be more able to knock down your door and snatch you under the cover that they have probable cause, because someone, who knows who it was, has reported something suspicious about you or your house!

The FBI have networks of informants now--developed by bribing or infiltrating people within targeted movements and organizations. And, of course, as Bush pointed out, local police also have networks of community snitches that they have been developing over the last decade under the banner of "war on gangs."

But Operation TIPS is a startling leap over that: this is a centralized national plan for the ongoing surveillance of everyone, in their everyday lives, intended to mobilize literally millions of organized government spies in every neighborhood and public space.

The plan is rolling out on many levels:

First, the open call for informing on your neighbors is intended to unleash an army of self-appointed snoops, spies and bigots. The Justice Department has set up an Operation TIPS web site which talks about the importance of providing "a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity." It already includes a toll-free hotline phone number direct to the central intelligence agencies and police.

Second, the federal government is opening direct contact with government agencies, companies and unions--seeking to mobilize them to bring literally millions of people, in an organized way, into a network of police spying. Calling the FBI to report on the daily activity of people is supposed to become an acceptable, approved part of the job for whole sections of the workforce. There is "special training" planned for such recruits--which will supposedly be carried out in close connection with their employers.

In its pilot stage, planned to start in August, Operation TIPS calls for recruiting 1 million workers in ten target cities (that are not being publicly named). From there it would expand nationwide. The New York Times estimated, "That could mean, if the plan is carried out nationwide, there will be a government snoop for every 24 Americans."

In a shameful example of government collaboration, James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was one of the first to sign up. On June 21, Hoffa said he would personally ask union truck drivers to take part in this "grassroots homeland security effort." Hoffa said: "We have 500,000 truck drivers on the road at any one time, and these people can be the eyes and ears of the homeland security office." The Teamsters Union includes 250,000 workers in United Parcel Service, the nation's largest package carrier.

Third, there will be active networks set up in city after city, based in the Bush administration's Freedom Corps and Citizens Corps programs. Last January, Bush announced these "Corps" in his State of the Union address--calling on each American to donate 4,000 hours in their lifetime to "the service of your neighbors and your nation." Now it has become clear that hours spent "serving your neighbors" can involve looking in their windows for the government. The Citizen Corps is intended to be local organizations of "first responders"--volunteers, local officials, police and churches that plug into government "preparedness" agencies. Since April over 70 councils have been created in various communities. These councils are being coordinated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency --the notorious nerve center of the Reagan-era REX 84 plans to suspend the Constitution and round up dissidents).

Operation TIPS has been described by its promoters as an extension of existing "neighborhood watch" organizations--which are now supposed to be doubled in number, while they are coordinated with federal police agencies.

The Citizens' Preparedness Guide lists "Places of Worship" as places for making "preparedness a part of daily lives," and adds, "Consider incorporating your place of worship into your Neighborhood Watch Programs."

The initial plan envisioned gathering the reports of these spies into a government database that will be available not only to the FBI but also to police across the country. Furthermore, because this information would be gathered surreptitiously, the targeted individuals would have no knowledge of the existence of intelligence files gathered on them, nor their contents. Billions of dollars are already being spent in Washington hiring "analysts" for the flood of informant information that is expected. Since the informants will be secret, this information will be gathered without the "targets" knowing they have files or are under surveillance.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced which document the broadening scope of the federal "anti- terror" dragnet. The Associated Press (July 12) reported: "While law enforcement looks broadly for terrorists, some FBI agents are working closely with Treasury agents to conduct a more specialized search for U.S. residents who might be working in an advisory capacity. As part of the effort, federal investigators are conducting extensive checks into the backgrounds of long-time citizens who fall under suspicion." AP quotes an anonymous law enforcement official who says agents "are looking for people who have an affinity toward or sympathy for those carrying out terrorist attacks and provide any kind of support."

A Flood of Protest and Questions

This is a plan only a Nazi could love. Operation TIPS is obviously part of a blueprint for a police state--for a future where people need to fear their neighbors and co-workers, and where every word might be reported to the federal police. This Operation TIPS has the added outrage that it intends to use millions of working people as the backbone of its apparatus.

From the very beginning, after the TIPS web site went up, people of many kinds responded with shock and outrage. One long-time worker with the Keyspan gas company, Raymond Arnold, told the New York Times that he felt it was important for utility workers to "mind your business" and leave people with their privacy. He described how "A long time ago, I saw a Communist flag in someone's basement," and did not "notify the authorities." He is well aware that the government is trying to change that.

Many newspapers and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out that Operation TIPS is a crude and blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights. This Constitutional Amendment says people, their homes and papers should be safe from "unreasonable search and seizures," and establishes that government agents can only conduct searches if they have court-issued warrants based on "probable cause" that a law is being broken. Recruiting millions of volunteer, civilian informants who routinely spy on everyone means, in fact, exactly the opposite : Operation TIPS means that no one has privacy of their homes and papers, and that the government has the ability to search people's homes without warrants or "probable cause."

Religious figures have spoken out to reject Ashcroft's attempt to involve them in police spying. "I think that's terrible," said Reverend Elizabeth Braddon of Brooklyn's Park Slope United Methodist Church. "With September 11 and since, our concern has been to offer protection to South Asian and other communities.... We would certainly not use our church community to target others." "We're not here to spy on each other," said David W. Dyson, pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. Peter Laarman, senior minister of Judson Memorial, called the idea "a total violation of what the spirit of religious community should be."

Many commentators have pointed out that an army of vigilante government snoops are likely to have reactionary and bigoted ideas of what is "suspicious." On TV talkshows there were discussions about whether postal workers would now report if a household receives books in Arabic. People asked if the cable guy will now be expected to scan your bookshelf for "suspicious" books and videotapes. Will discussions in restaurants and highway truck stops now quickly and routinely get sent on to the FBI together with license plates? Will meter readers report you if you ask them if they are part of Operation TIPS?

There has also been opposition from rightwing and conservative forces--who openly say they fear these police powers may be used against them. Other forces within the ruling class point out that police hotlines are ideal for those who want to take petty revenge--and that there is likely to be a flood of false and unsubstantiated charges filling up police files. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy discussed how someone applying for a government job or veterans benefits might be secretly labeled "suspicious' just because their dog irritated a hateful neighbor, or because the UPS guy thought their political T-shirt was outrageous. One researcher dug up a piece of relevant history, reminding everyone how in 1917, the Justice Department formed the "American Protective League" to uncover citizens who were radical or "disloyal." The movement operated as a spy network, but also raided leftwing newspaper offices, and even brutally burned activists using old-school "tar and feathering."

Clearly a major concern is that government informants will act on bigotry toward Arab, Muslim and immigrant people. Reporters interviewed various people who were planning to participate and documented some of the bigotry and xenophobia (fear of foreigners) that Operation TIPS will empower. A New York Times article wrote (July 21): "Richard Rucireto...a Federal Express driver in Brooklyn who worked until recently in the increasingly Middle Eastern neighborhood of Bay Ridge, said that after Sept. 11 he routinely passed on information about what he saw in Arab-American customers' apartments. `Whenever I would go to a place where there was a lot of them,' he said, `I would tell the landlord, hey, you got nine people living up there or whatever, and they would call the FBI. and get them checked out...'. But Mr. Rucireto said he had noticed that some Arab store owners in Bay Ridge signed a different name every time they received a package from him. He also said he was struck by the increased number of satellite dishes he was delivering to Arabs after Sept. 11."

Pressing to Put TIPS in Place

The Bush administration responded to the intense controversy by pressing ahead and pressuring various institutions to cooperate. Early in this controversy, on July 17, the Postal Service had embarrassed the White House when they announced: "The Postal Service had been approached by Homeland Security regarding Operation TIPS; however, it was decided that the Postal Service and its letter carriers would not be participating in the program at this time." It is a sign of these times that the Postal Service added, "It is important to note, however, that the Postal Service has established processes for our postal employees nationwide to report suspicious activity to the Postal Inspection Service and to local authorities." The Postal Service has 800,000 employees, and their participation had been expected to be a major component of TIPS.

Apparently, great pressure was exerted behind the scenes. Within 24 hours, there was a reversal of policy. The Postal Service announced on July 18 that they would meet with Justice Department agents to discuss Operation TIPS. The postal officials claimed their earlier rejection had been made "because we had insufficient information on the program, and because we had not discussed the issue internally or with the two unions affected." In a particularly troubling development, the Postal Service announce- ment added that the unions of postal employees, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, "agreed a meeting was necessary with Department of Justice representatives to discuss the initiative." Reports then started appearing in the press that the Postal Service would, in fact, be encouraging its employees to participate in Operation TIPS.

The Bush administration took a series of actions to improve the "image" of their TIPS program. Spokesmen for the government deserve to get special "Yeah Right" awards for their completely unbelievable claims:

First, Homeland Security tsar Tom Ridge said, ``The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans. That's just not what the president is all about, and not what the TIPS program is all about.'' Obviously every word here is a lie. Confirming that, Ridge went on to explain that certain kinds of workers make ideal informants: ``They might pick up a break in the certain rhythm or pattern of a community. They may pick up in the course of their daily business something that's very unusual.''

Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashcroft himself appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and insisted that his Operation TIPS would not invade people's homes. The plan, he said, would only gather reports on things seen in "public spaces." Public places include schools, hallways, parks, restaurants, workplaces, streets, shopping malls, parking lots, balconies, porches, public gatherings, churches and yards.

Ashcroft's claim is more transparent nonsense: once an anonymous army of vigilantes is mobilized, it is obviously impossible to believe that the FBI will closely study spy reports on things seen around your home, while ignoring what spies say they saw when they get into your home.

Ashcroft's defenders in the Senate charged it was "paranoid" to oppose federal databanks of spy reports. Ashcroft claimed that the spy data would not be stored in any single Justice Department database. He said: "I've recommended that there be no database and I've been assured there won't be one." How exactly he intends to store the dossiers created by millions of new government informants was left to our imaginations.

Finally, Ashcroft revealed his complete Gestapo mentality when he explained why there was no reason to fear TIPS--after all, he said, all its reports and rumors would be passed on to "appropriate federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies." If systematic daily spying by millions of informants feeds into "appropriate agencies," we should all be comforted, happy and supportive!

The TIPS program is pressing ahead--and it is also the focus of continued controversy and resistance.

On one hand, Ashcroft has shamelessly announced that it is going into operation. Like so many other police operations after 9/11 TIPS is being created by executive decree. At the same time, this proposal has stirred the most visible opposition in the current wave of fascist measures. It is extremely important to step up this resistance throughout society.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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