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A call to duty for civilian spy corps

In Washington, a new International Spy Museum has opened just in the nick of time. Among the artifacts of hot and cold war on display is an overcoat with a camera lens hidden in a button and a pistol-lipstick called "the kiss of death." But best of all is a gift shop with disguises for sale.

May I suggest that you get 'em while they're hot? If all goes according to government plan, they'll make great Christmas presents for the cable guy and the UPS gal, for the meter reader and electrical worker. After all, these are the folks invited to volunteer in the newest branch of the war against terrorism: a civilian spy corps.

Deep in the homeland security strategy proposal just announced is a program called Operation TIPS. The Terrorism Information and Prevention System is described as "a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity."

This is a plan coming soon to your neighborhood. By the end of the summer they'll be giving tips in 10 cities. In some reverse image of a Richard Scarry book or a children's television show, some of those people will be looking for something _ anything? anyone? _ "suspicious" as they make their daily rounds. This isn't Mr. Rogers' neighborhood; it's Mr. Ridge's.

Oh, I know the administration doesn't like it when we call a "national reporting system" a national spying program. Tom Ridge, the director of Homeland Security, says, "There's a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante." I couldn't agree more. The big difference, however, is TIPS.

If a package of plutonium is shipped from Baghdad to the local Bed and Breakfast, I assume my FedEx man already has the common sense to report it. But when the government starts virtually deputizing civilians _ giving the green light to the gas company to read more than my meter and encouraging the delivery service to come in search of more than my signature _ I remember the meaning of the word "spooky."

Does anyone in the government actually think that TIPS would be more effective at nabbing terrorists than frisking Al Gore at the airport? Do they believe TIPSters would be more accurate than the passenger who pinpointed an Indian movie star and her family as terrorists on a recent flight into New York?

Counterterrorism expert Juliette Kayyem says, "It's not going to work. We have to become very savvy and secretive and better with intelligence to win this war on terrorism. What you're going to get (with TIPS) is a lot of phone calls about an Arab couple who moved down the street and everyone is suspicious."

Is it any wonder the Postal Service declined to join?

What is equally dismaying is that the civilian spy corps is being promoted under the rubric of civic engagement, even patriotic service, for the workaday American. It's posted on the "Citizen Corps" Web site under a quote from the president saying, "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self."

This reminds me of last September when our nation of individualists suddenly rediscovered the national motto: E Pluribus Unum. Financiers and firefighters, New Yorkers and Midwesterners felt we were in this _ this country _ together. We gave blood and money and talked about the "home front."

Surveys done that fall reported a drop in cynicism and a gain in trust. We were more united and ready for shared sacrifice than in decades, said Harvard's Tom Sander, who oversaw the survey.

Our leaders never knew quite how to engage that community impulse. In his first speech to the nation after Sept. 11, the president said, "Americans are asking, "what is expected of us?' " His answer? Calm, patience, confidence. "I ask you to live your lives and hug your children."

Hugging was our patriotic sacrifice. The war on terrorism hasn't yet found its victory garden. This oil presidency never asked us even to tamp down the energy consumption that makes us dependent on unstable and undemocratic parts of the world. Indeed, we were told to go, patriotically, shopping.

Now the administration adds something else to the list. Hugging, shopping and . . . snooping.

During World War II, civilians stood on rooftops scanning the skies for enemy planes. During the war on terrorism, will we have TIPS volunteers cruising the neighborhood, peering in windows for suspects?

Instead of bringing us together, we have a plan likely to drive us apart. In this Bush administration, a thousand points of light may come from buttons in the overcoats of the meter men.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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