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Ashcroft's snoops lost their chance

I can't help thinking what might have been if the House Homeland Security Committee hadn't deleted Attorney General John Ashcroft's plan for an officially amateur version of the CIA. We have been hiring so many baggage scanners we may soon be a nation equally divided between snoopers and snitches. Up to now we had thought Ashcroft saw as our most critical shortages guns and death sentences. We were wrong.

His vision is of a Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS). It was based on the sound premise that there is a James Bond in everyone, and we should out him. You may look at a plumber and see someone who might or might not come when he says he will and charges you $75 just to look down the kitchen drain. John Ashcroft looks at that same plumber and sees a terrorist-spotter, gleaning information while he puts his drill down on the delicate table your Aunt Sarah left you.

Similarly, Ashcroft looks at a letter carrier, who also might not come when you expect him to, and he sees 007 with a key to the front door of every apartment building on the block. He can ferret out such information as that a neighbor has removed a "Proud to be an American" sticker from her bumper without a word of explanation.

The postmaster general is against having his people be Ashcroft asterisks. He wrote a letter telling him so. The general seemed to feel that letter carriers have enough to do delivering the mail.

I am partial to post offices because my father worked his heart out in one for 40 years, and I am of the dying breed of letter-writers. I think letter carriers may be demoralized because they keep hearing that cool people keep in touch via e-mail without the bother of pen, paper, envelope and stamp.

But to them I say help is on the way. "Infectious greed" has infected cyberspace, and I'm not talking about WorldCom. Just today, when I tapped into the magic box, I had to fight my way through 296 unwanted messages, offering unsought advice on everything from bargain rates on burial plots to getting a free stay in Las Vegas. The postmaster general is right, and Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., wrote him a letter _ not an e-mail _ to commend him.

I have to confess I was most intrigued by the possibility that our principal law enforcement officer would take a hands-on approach to his pet project. That is, I pictured him in an unmarked van, wearing a headset wired for trouble, and rolling around to crisis spots to check on his rookie spooks, Ashcroft's Asterisks. The chances are that he might be summoned to the site of a hot dispute between a householder and a painter about the right shade for the guest room. The painter says she ordered oyster white, but she is sobbing that she distinctly said eggshell.

The attorney general would be equal to the task of mediator; his credentials as an interior designer are well established. Remember that bold girl, the topless aluminum statue in the Great Hall of the Justice Department. Fearing the onset of lewd thoughts among the reporters who were scribbling down his wisdom about detaining suspicious- looking strangers, he draped her in blue. (Sex and the City, in its opening show, took up the subject of breast-baring from a different point of view.)

I would have liked to see how Ashcroft adjudicated in the multiple-grandmother deaths that seem to plague some of our no-show artisans. I would have liked his take on a tiler who was doing his stuff on my small bathroom. He carefully placed some carefully chosen decorative tiles in spots where they could not be seen. I asked if he could relocate them. I was told that was impossible because he was in North Carolina attending his grandmother's funeral. This was her second death to my certain knowledge.

I have not even brought up the subject of the arming of the Asterisks. Knowing Ashcroft's views on the Second Amendment, which he interprets as a call for arms, that may be a silly question. Uniforms? Or a pin that says piously, "I spy for you"?

My air-conditioner is kicking up, and I am too busy planning my strategy for the repairman, if I can get him. This torrid summer has him hopping. I'm going to play it as if he is an Ashcroft recruit. He must be very rich, being so busy, and may be into the stock market in a big way and think that Kenneth Lay is misunderstood. I plan to leave in plain sight a copy of The Weekly Standard, which I read not because it is right _ it is very right-wing _ but because it is well-written. It has a wonderful, savage parody every week and long discussions about such issues as Ginger Rogers' worthiness to be Fred Astaire's partner. The big thing is this week's cover with its headline, "The Coming War with Saddam." That should certify my patriotism.

I am not complaining, but, thank you very much, Mr. Ashcroft, I honestly thought life was complicated enough without your TIPSters.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate