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Reverse course on TIPS

With the plethora of television reality shows these days _ Real World, Survivor, Big Brother, Big Brother 2, Big Brother "n", _ maybe the Bush administration was under the mistaken belief that Americans welcome being watched as we go about our lives. Maybe the Justice Department failed to appreciate, in light of all the information collected, bought and sold about each of us, that we are nonetheless uncomfortable having our own government dossier.

Whatever the misunderstanding, the administration's new program of domestic snooping is not going over well. In fact, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS, rolled out for implementation next month, is encountering heavy resistance from conservatives, liberals and middle-of-the-road Americans alike.

The Bush people should take the public pulse, examine the polls or whatever else they do to measure the level of discomfort of the American public, and reverse course on TIPS. When the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a very conservative Texas Republican, have the same low opinion of a government program, you know the program has problems.

As envisioned by Justice, TIPS will recruit up to 1-million Americans to spy on their friends, neighbors and customers. This snitch corps of nearly 4 percent of all Americans would be dispatched to look for "suspicious activity" as their fellow Americans go about their business. Anything of note would be reported to the federal government. The department envisions employees from various industries participating, particularly those, such as mail carriers, cable installers, utility workers and train conductors, who regularly interact with the unwary public. The U.S. Postal Service already has announced it will not participate.

Many of these workers are welcomed inside houses and offices, places the FBI cannot go without a warrant. While the government claims it isn't looking for information about what goes on inside someone's home, those kinds of "tips" aren't likely to be ignored.

We've seen this kind of large-scale internal security corps before, although not in our free society. The citizens of the former Soviet Union and East Germany were routinely tapped to snitch on each other for any sign of disloyalty or agitation. In East Germany, the Stasi held files on 6-million people.

Whether TIPS would enhance homeland security is speculative at best, but its threat to our privacy and freedoms should make Americans uncomfortable. Train conductors and utility workers have no training in what constitutes suspicious activity. Sure, if a cable installer finds a bombmaking factory in a customer's living room, he should report it. But there is little likelihood aspiring terrorists would be so careless or obvious.

It is more likely that Americans will mistake the routine activities and common possessions of Arab immigrants, and others with dark skin or Muslim garb, as suspicious. Indian actress Samyuktha Verma and her entourage were recently detained for hours at La Guardia airport in New York. A fellow passenger on the flight from Chicago saw her group excitedly pointing to the Statue of Liberty and other city landmarks and decided they posed a potential threat. Is this the kind of tip the government is looking for?

If we learned one thing about the intelligence lapses leading to Sept. 11, it is that our security agencies cannot, in a timely manner, analyze the mountains of information they already collect. It's difficult to see how adding to this burden the sightings and hunches of untrained citizen-snoops will make us safer.

Our freedoms are based on the premise that the government will become involved in our lives only when there is evidence of wrongdoing. Unleashing a million citizen-spies to monitor the activities and conversations of Americans turns this notion on its head.