July 17, 2002

The govt's TIPS program means an army of citizen-informers

The "Citizens Corps" website describes the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), a new federal program, as follows:

"Operation TIPS – the Terrorism Information and Prevention System – will be a nationwide program giving millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity. Operation TIPS, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice, will begin as a pilot program in 10 cities that will be selected. Operation TIPS, involving 1 million workers in the pilot stage, will be a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity."

A million spies reporting on their fellow Americans – and that's just the beginning! The nation's busybodies are going to have a field day; every crackpot in the country is going to flock to this program, like flies to fecal matter, eager to get in on the fun. Why, just think of the opportunities it affords the nation's nutballs: everyone they ever hated (ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, ex-friends, and just random victims) will feel their wrath, and their power. It's a blank check issued to America's obsessives, who are going to do their best to make life miserable for the rest of us.

The inauguration of this nationwide network of snitches means we are under attack, not only from turban-wearing foreigners who hate us because of Baywatch, but also from the mailman, the window-washer, the carpet-installer, and the Roto-Rooter man, who, instead of doing their jobs, will be too busy nosing around to be bothered with such mundane activities. This means they not only get to snoop around the premises, looking in the medicine cabinet and sneaking a peek at the contents of your hard drive, but they also get to charge double-time – since it'll take twice as long to do the simplest tasks.

Life, in short, is turning into a nightmare.

As Ritt Goldstein reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, the US will have more citizen informants as a percentage of the population than the former East German Stasi secret police. I think the example of the Cuban "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" (CDRs) is more apt. To hear Cuba's apologists tell it, these are an exercise in "mass democracy," but our own US State Department characterizes them as efficient instruments of state repression and enforcers of political orthodoxy. However, all agree that the CDRs, because of their all-pervasiveness, wield vast power. As an excellent Reuters piece on the CDRs, published on the fortieth anniversary of their founding, informs us:

"The CDRs keep a detailed register of each neighborhood's inhabitants, not only listing each occupant by house but also recording such information as academic or work history, spending habits, any potentially suspicious behavior, contact with foreigners and attendance at pro-government meetings.

"'The CDRs know exactly who lives in each block, who they are, what they do, if they work or not ... and keep a registry in coordination with the Interior Ministry,' Humberto Carrillo, who is in charge of ideology for the CDRs' national committee, told Reuters."

In comparing the TIPS program to Cuba's CDRs, have I committed the sin of "moral equivalence"? After all, America is hardly a Communist dictatorship. But the point is that, while the regimes are not equivalent, the people are: every loser who needs to get a life will flock to TIPS, just as their Cuban counterparts join the CDR – and for the same reasons.

That this will hinder and not help in the effort to protect America from genuine terrorists seems a foregone conclusion. The system will be clogged with so many false alarms – the result of grudges, political agendas, and outright pranks – that no really useful information will be able to get through. The system seems designed to fail – unless, of course, the purpose of TIPS has little or nothing to do with its announced mission. There are two possibilities….

First, it could be that this is an American version of the CDRs in embryo, an attempt to mobilize support for the government and head off any opposition before it has a chance to coalesce. TIPS might be seen, then, as a government-funded version of Bill Bennett's group of self-appointed watchdogs, "Americans for Victory Over Terrorism" (AVOT), which can be activated when the authorities begin to invoke the more draconian provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act to crack down on the opposition. But this, frankly, seems far-fetched, if only because it is a bit too bold for the Bushies, too Seven Days in May-ish to be quite real. A more likely – if no less novelistic – scenario is that they're preparing for some immense disaster, such as a massive bio-terrorist attack.

In researching the anthrax story, I came upon this January 20 article in the Hartford Courant by Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari – and it has haunted me ever since. Tell me if the opening paragraph doesn't send a chill down your spine:

"Lab specimens of anthrax spores, Ebola virus and other pathogens disappeared from the Army's biological warfare research facility in the early 1990s, during a turbulent period of labor complaints and recriminations among rival scientists there, documents from an internal Army inquiry show."

It gets scarier. Only one of 27 pathogenic specimens gone missing since a 1992 inventory at Fort Detrick's US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, in Maryland, has been found:

"The fate of the rest, some containing samples no larger than a pencil point, remains unclear. In addition to anthrax and Ebola, the specimens included hanta virus, simian AIDS virus and two that were labeled 'unknown' – an Army euphemism for classified research whose subject was secret."

They're telling us we face a threat from Muslim fanatics, foreigners whose demonic hatred for this country is deeply ingrained and utterly implacable – but then why is the FBI focusing on Americans as the probable culprits in the anthrax attacks? Our own scientists are the prime suspects: several have been interrogated, and at least one had his home searched. But what's puzzling is that the investigation has been carried out in slow motion. Even when it became clear that only a few locations, and a handful of scientists, had the means to whip up such a high-grade batch of finely-milled anthrax dust, the FBI insisted on mailing out questionnaires to thousands of American scientists and casting as wide a net as possible. It's almost as if they were afraid to move in on the probable culprit, for fear he would retaliate in some way….

Although whoever sent the anthrax letters is invariably portrayed as a lone nut, a singularly mad scientist in pursuit of some obscure agenda, it seems far more likely that we are dealing with a group of people, small enough to remain undercover but big enough to utilize the division of labor required to accomplish their task. If the Anthrax Killer has confederates, then any attempt to get the ringleader could lead to the unleashing of biological horrors we haven't conceived of in our worst nightmares….

But who are these guys? From the modus operandi of the anthrax letters, the political agenda of the bio-terrorists begins to take shape: although later evidence pointed to a domestic origin, their intent was clearly to implicate Muslims. The text of the deadly letters – hailing Allah and denouncing Israel – was meant to pin the blame on Arabs. But what motive would an American scientist have to commit such a heinous act? We are told that perhaps the perpetrator intended to increase his own power and prestige within the bio-war community, and that his goal was probably to raise awareness of the potential threat from biological agents and therefore increase federal funding. But this method seems a bit … disproportionate to its ostensible purpose. Surely there are other, less risky ways of raising awareness, in Congress and in the public.

Like any nightmare, the longer the anthrax mystery continues to baffle us, the more irrational and frightening it becomes. Or, maybe, not so irrational. The possibility that our government is being held hostage by a mysterious cabal of top-level American bio-terrorists, as fantastic as it seems, cannot be ruled out. The question then arises: what kind of ransom are they demanding?

Don't blame me if the above sounds like the plot synopsis of an "X-Files" reject, but there must be some reason why they're planning to inoculate 500,000 health care workers with the smallpox vaccine. Life in America is becoming one long nightmarish fever dream, where the worst made-for-television scenarios have overtaken and subsumed the mundane realities of our pre-9/11 existence. We now live in a world where our plumbers could report us for "suspicious activities," and the milkman could be a government agent in disguise: where you open the mail wearing rubber gloves, and have to face the possibility of a full body-cavity search every time you get on a plane.

In short: life nowadays sucks. And there's no end in sight….

Okay, okay, now don't get too upset: there's plenty to divert us from the ugly reality of a world gone mad. As I said the other day, look on the bright side; hey, isn't that Pat Buchanan on MSNBC, with his old friend Bill Press, doing a two-hour reinvention of "Crossfire"?

Why, it sure is: two whole hours of anti-war, no-holds-barred Old Right isolationism, delivered with style and gusto – what more could you want? Check it out, and be sure to write MSNBC telling them how much you like it.

Yes, I realize a lot of my more, uh, liberal readers can't understand why I consider Buchanan one of the peace movement's most valuable assets. But just tune in, some day, when they're talking about foreign policy, and see if you don't come to agree.

At any rate, you can bet the Other Side won't be shy in expressing their opinion, and we can do no less. Buchanan, the author of a masterful manifesto of foreign policy wisdom, A Republic, Not an Empire, is a powerful spokesman for the view that the planned war on Iraq isn't our fight and would be a disaster for the US: his high visibility and combative nature are arrows in our quiver. Let the War Party tremble – our Achilles has arrived!

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.