The Bush Administration aims to recruit millions of United States citizens as domestic informants in a program likely to alarm civil liberties groups.
The Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS, means the US will have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police. The program would use a minimum of 4 per cent of Americans to report "suspicious activity".
Civil liberties groups have already warned that, with the passage earlier this year of the Patriot Act, there is potential for abusive, large-scale investigations of US citizens.
As with the Patriot Act, TIPS is being pursued as part of the so-called war against terrorism. It is a Department of Justice project.
Highlighting the scope of the surveillance network, TIPS volunteers are being recruited primarily from among those whose work provides access to homes, businesses or transport systems. Letter carriers, utility employees, truck drivers and train conductors are among those named as targeted recruits.
A pilot program, described on the government Web site www.citizencorps.gov, is scheduled to start next month in 10 cities, with 1 million informants participating in the first stage. Assuming the program is initiated in the 10 largest US cities, that will be 1 million informants for a total population of almost 24 million, or one in 24 people.
Historically, informant systems have been the tools of non-democratic states. According to a 1992 report by Harvard University's Project on Justice, the accuracy of informant reports is problematic, with some informants having embellished the truth, and others suspected of having fabricated their reports.
Present Justice Department procedures mean that informant reports will enter databases for future reference and/or action. The information will then be broadly available within the department, related agencies and local police forces. The targeted individual will remain unaware of the existence of the report and of its contents.
The Patriot Act already provides for a person's home to be searched without that person being informed that a search was ever performed, or of any surveillance devices that were implanted.
At state and local levels the TIPS program will be co-ordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was given sweeping new powers, including internment, as part of the Reagan Administration's national security initiatives. Many key figures of the Reagan era are part of the Bush Administration.
The creation of a US "shadow government", operating in secret, was another Reagan national security initiative.
Ritt Goldstein is an investigative journalist and a former leader in the movement for US law enforcement accountability. He has lived in Sweden since 1997, seeking political asylum there, saying he was the victim of life-threatening assaults in retaliation for his accountability efforts. His application has been supported by the European Parliament, five of Sweden's seven big political parties, clergy, and Amnesty and other rights groups.
Copyright © 2002. The Sydney Morning Herald