Ashcroft: No central database for citizen tips

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

Amid growing concern over Operation TIPS, which stands for Terrorist Information and Prevention System, Ashcroft sought to assure members of the Senate Judiciary Committee July 25 that reports of suspicious activity would not be retained in a central database. Ashcroft said, however, that some reports may be kept in databases maintained by various law enforcement agencies.

The Bush administration plans to launch Operation TIPS in 10 cities in August. Initially, officials hope to sign up one 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," according to the official Operation TIPS Web site.

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

Operation TIPS officials hope to recruit truck drivers, mail carriers, meter readers, train conductors and other workers "to report what they see in public areas and along transportation routes," according to the site.

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

The idea of creating a database of reports on activity that "informants" such as mail carriers or cable television installers might think suspicious is troubling, said an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary committee. Even more worrisome is the prospect that unsubstantiated reports might be "accessible through the Justice Department and local agencies and police forces," the aide said.

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.

If Operation TIPS goes forward, it could generate more suspicion than improved security, said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We have seen other cases where programs like this have caused mistrust of the government."

For example, when the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program urged children to turn in their parents for drug use, support for the program evaporated. "It was shown to be a complete failure," Schwartz said.

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security wants to ban Operation TIPS, and the Senate is considering a ban. Leahy warned that the program could transform Americans from being vigilant to vigilantes.

Operation TIPS is part of a much broader Justice effort to reshape itself to better fight the war against terrorism. Much of the effort has focused on technology and on updating the laws and policies that govern Justice operations.

Rules "created in an era of rotary phones failed to keep pace with terrorists utilizing multiple cell phones and the Internet," Ashcroft said.

New investigative guidelines adopted by the FBI permit agents to use data mining and Internet searches to uncover information for use in investigations. And the USA Patriot Act, which passed last fall, gives law enforcement agencies greater freedom to share information and increased authority to gather intelligence, he said.

Justice officials are trying to devise better ways to share information with agencies, Ashcroft said. For example, the new computer systems the FBI is buying through its Trilogy program should be able to communicate with computer systems in other agencies involved in counterterrorism. That is not a capability the FBI currently has, he said.

The FBI also plans to adopt report formats that will be compatible with the formats that the proposed Homeland Security Department and other agencies will use, he said.

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Tip off

Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) is part of President Bush's USA Freedom Corps initiative, a volunteer organization Bush established by executive order after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration plans to launch Operation TIPS in August and envisions an eventual network of millions of American workers who, by the nature of their work, could notice "suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity," according to the Operations TIPS Web site (www.citizencorps.gov). Citizen Corps is part of the USA Freedom Corps.

To report suspicious behavior, TIPS volunteers would call a toll-free hot line or file a report via the Internet. The reports would be sent electronically to a point of contact in each state.

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