WASHINGTON – A Bush administration proposal for a network of anti-terrorism tipsters is being revamped after civil liberties groups and some federal lawmakers said it would encourage Americans to peek into each other’s homes in the name of national security.
The Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program being crafted by the Justice Department was scheduled to launch in 10 pilot cities this month. But administration officials said Friday the launch will be delayed until Congress returns in September. The move is being made to give lawmakers more input on the program.
Meanwhile, DOJ overhauled Operation TIPS to exclude as would-be tipsters those working in industries and government agencies that often have access to people's homes. TIPS instead will focus on workers who operate on the highways, such as truck drivers, and at the ports of entry.
The program came under fire from civil libertarians and many in Congress. In fact, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, inserted language in the homeland security reorganization bill that would effectively kill the effort, leaving the issue in limbo until the House and Senate hammer out a final measure.
Justice officials said in June that utility companies, the Postal Service and trucking companies would be sought as possible participants. The goal was to offer a hot line people could call or a Web site to which people could submit tips if, during the course of their workday, they noticed something suspicious that could be terrorist activity.
But the Postal Service balked at its inclusion and other industries also expressed reservations, saying they didn't want their workers looked at by customers as potential spies.
DOJ now isn’t asking the Postal Service or utility companies that work in homes to take part in the program.
"We are not going to target any company or industry that has workers that are going inside people's homes or working around people's homes," said one Justice official, who added that the DOJ is "absolutely discouraging" tips on activities from within people's homes.
Laura W. Murphy, director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Operation TIPS in any form is still a breach of public trust by the administration.
"They've scaled back Operation TIPS, but it is still an effort to enlist the private sector as government sanctioned peeping Toms," Murphy said. "And it is still not clear that the government is offering any guidance about how to respect people's civil liberties."
DOJ has not decided who will operate the hot line, but a likely choice is the National White Collar Crime Center. That organization is a nonprofit corporation of law enforcement agencies and state and local prosecution offices.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.