WASHINGTON – The Postal Service has decided not to take part in a government program touted as a tip service for authorities concerned with terrorism, but which is being assailed as a scheme to cast ordinary Americans as "peeping Toms."
"The Postal Service had been approached by homeland security regarding Operation TIPS; however, it was decided that the Postal Service and its letter carriers would not be participating in the program at this time," the agency said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The project is promoted by the Justice Department as a means for workers whose jobs bring them in contact with neighborhoods, highways and businesses to report suspicious activities.
But it has drawn the wrath of the American Civil Liberties Union, which charged it would result in Americans spying on one another.
Attorney General John Ashcroft's spokeswoman said that the program, still in the development stage, would set up people to spy upon one another in their homes and communities.
Barbara Comstock said the agency had no intention for people -- such as utility workers -- to enter or have access to the homes of individuals. The idea is to organize information from people whose jobs take them through neighborhoods, along the coasts and highways and on public transit, she said.
Said Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge: "The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans. That's just not what the president is all about, and not what the TIPS program is all about."
The ACLU said the concept was worrisome, nonetheless.
"The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned Peeping Toms," said Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel.
The ACLU said it was concerned that these volunteers would, in effect, be searching people's homes without warrants, that resources would be wasted on a flood of useless tips and that the program would encourage vigilantism and racial profiling.
It would provide a central reporting point for reports of unusual but non-emergency situations. Among those involved in the voluntary program could be truckers, mail carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others.
On Tuesday the Postal Service said it had held preliminary discussions with homeland security officials on the project but had not make a final decision.
That decision came Wednesday with the announcement the agency would opt out, at least for now. Officials did not elaborate on the decision.
"It is important to note, however, that the Postal Service has established processes for our postal employees nationwide to report suspicious activity to the Postal Inspection Service and to local authorities," the agency pointed out.
Ridge told radio reporters that people in certain occupations are ideal observers. "They might pick up a break in the certain rhythm or pattern of a community. They may pick up in the course of their daily business something that's very unusual."
He noted that the program is voluntary.
"There's a big difference being vigilant and being a vigilante. We just want people to use their common sense," Ridge said. "It is not a government intrusion. The president just wants people to be alert and aware. ... We're not asking for people to spy on people."
Operation TIPS is a part of the Citizen Corps, an initiative announced by President Bush in his State of the Union address.