Ashcroft offers TIPS assurances

Attorney General John Ashcroft is recruiting millions of Americans to report activity they think is suspicious, but he told a Senate committee he does not want the reports to be kept permanently in a central database.

Amid growing concern over Operation TIPS, Ashcroft sought to assure members of the Senate Judiciary Committee July 25 that reports of suspicious activity will not be retained in a central database, but he said some reports may be kept in databases maintained by various law enforcement agencies.

The Bush administration plans to launch Operation TIPS (which stands for Terrorist Information and Prevention System) in 10 cities in August. Initially, the White House hopes to sign up a million "American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places."

When they spot something suspicious, the TIPS volunteers are supposed to file a report on a government Web site or call a toll-free hot line.

Operation TIPS aims to recruit truck drivers, mail carriers, meter readers, train conductors and others "to report what they see in public areas and along transportation routes."

But the program is prompting growing concern about privacy violations and the possibility that unfounded accusations will be lodged against innocent people.

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security wants to ban Operation TIPS, and the Senate is considering a ban.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warned that the program could transform Americans from vigilant to vigilantes.

What if a cable TV installer enters a home and then reports that he saw pictures of the World Trade Center and books about terrorism? Leahy asked Ashcroft. Would the Justice Department investigate? Interrogate? "Bring the person in?"

"It may be the head of Islamic studies at Harvard, or a kid doing a term paper at the University of Missouri," Leahy said.

"I'm very concerned that we don't end up with a database on innocent people. We do not want a situation" in which people are denied government mortgage loans or jobs "because someone didn't like their political opinions or the music they listened to," Leahy said.

Ashcroft said Operation TIPS is not intended to report on activity in private places, such as homes. But Leahy said some of those bring recruited for Operation TIPS "have more access to homes than law enforcement" personnel do.

Ashcroft said he advised against creating a database that would be maintained by Operation TIPS, and "I have been given assurances that TIPS will not maintain a database." But the FBI and other agencies might preserve TIPS reports in databases, he said.

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