"No one expects that when they exercise their First Amendment rights to ask questions or complain about a proposed government program that they're going to be listed on a database in the White House," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told FOX News Thursday, saying the White House effort raises serious privacy concerns. "You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the potential for serious abuse."
On Tuesday, the White House posted a blog that asked supporters to report "fishy" information they come across about the health insurance debate. The appeal was made at the end of the blog, which showed a video that countered a set of online clips that made it look like Obama wanted to eliminate private coverage.
"There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there," the blog concludes. "Since we can't keep track of all of them here at the White House, we're asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to email@example.com."
With the request raising the possibility of a kind of Nixonian "enemies list" that would initiate a whole new brand of surveillance over that undertaken during the Bush administration, critics called the move an Orwellian tactic to control the health care debate.
"If you get an e-mail from your neighbor and it doesn't sound right, send it to the White House?" said Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo. "People, I think all across America are going to say is this 1984? What is happening here? Is big brother watching?"
Cornyn alleged the request is part of the "demonization" and "name-calling" used by health care reform proponents to battle critics, who have been interrupting lawmakers with their concerns and questions at town halls across the country in recent days.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said the White House should "clarify" what it meant by the message.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday denied that the IP addresses or names of people would be trapped by the administration.
"We have seen and as I've discussed from this podium a lot of misinformation around health care reform, a lot of it spread, I think, purposefully. We have used on many occasions the Web site to debunk things that are simply not true. We ask people that if they have questions about health care reform and about what they're hearing about its effects on them, to let us know and we provide information to show that isn't true. But nobody is collecting names," Gibbs said.
Democrats have likened the scenes to "mob rule" and accused the protesters and critics of being backed or put up to the behavior by large conservative organizations.
In some cases, the critics at the town hall meetings have shouted at lawmakers, calling them liars and drowning them out. At least a handful of large organizations acknowledge they have encouraged people to express their concerns on health care reform and have challenged the demonization of attempts to organize communities around an issue that affects everyone.
The conservative organizations that have acknowledged encouraging town hall participation say they've only played a limited role. And at a number of town hall meetings, the participants have tried to engage the lawmakers in substantive debate.
Democrats have focused on the more unruly protests in an apparent bid to marginalize the opposition, particularly during the volatile period of summer recess.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the protests "astroturf" -- slang for grassroots organizing that is not genuine -- and even said the protesters are carrying swastikas to meetings.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said lawmakers will continue to press for reform "in spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings."