OPERATION TIPS--the Terrorism Information and Prevention System--is a scheme that Joseph Stalin would have appreciated. Plans for its pilot phase, to start in August, have Operation TIPS recruiting a million letter carriers, meter readers, cable technicians, and other workers with access to private homes as informants to report to the Justice Department any activities they think suspicious.
This is not an updating of George Orwell's ''1984.'' It is not a satire on the paranoid fantasies of right-wing kooks who see black helicopters swooping across their big sky. It will be a nationwide program run by Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department. If it is allowed to start up and gather steam, it will begin in 10 cities and then expand everywhere, enrolling millions of Americans to spy on their neighbors.
On the Web site of President Bush's new Citizen Corps program, this assault on the Constitution is described without any hint of irony as ''a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity.''
After the Berlin Wall came down and communism vanished into the dustbin of history, Czechs, East Germans, Poles, and Hungarians had to suffer through wrenching revelations about the reporting systems their totalitarian regimes had instituted. The Communist Party bosses in those captive nations justified the pervasive recruitment of citizens to inform on their neighbors as a requirement of security and a proof of loyalty to the party, the revolution, or the working class.
If Ashcroft wishes to assess the likely effect of the snooping regime he is about to implement, he could ask postal workers from the old days in Prague to explain what happens to a society's sense of solidarity when everybody on the block assumes that the mailman is telling the secret police that Comrade X has been reading bourgeois books.
For a bit of the shock therapy Ashcroft and his fellow travelers seem to need, they ought to consult some of the citizens in the former East Germany who discovered, when looking into their Stasi files, that under the former regime they had been spied upon for years by a husband or wife.
Ashcroft's informant corps is a vile idea not merely because it violates civil liberties in a narrow legal sense or because it will sabotage genuine efforts to prevent terrorism by overloading law enforcement officials with irrelevant reports about Americans who have nothing to do with terrorists. Operation TIPS should be stopped because it is utterly anti-American. It would give Stalin and the KGB a delayed triumph in the Cold War - in the name of the Bush administration's war against terrorism.
This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 7/17/2002.
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