This week's "John Doe" episode in the House's "9/11 bill" conference negotiations ended well, thanks to a drumbeat of pro-tipster sentiment and an eleventh-hour cave-in by House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat. That it took House Democrats so long to come to reason says much about both the pressure groups in opposition and the difficulty Democrats have in saying no to the far left.
For readers who haven't followed, at issue was whether tipsters who call 1-800 suspicious-activity hotlines could be sued in court if their reports turn out to be dead ends. This was not about bad-faith tips, but rather ordinary citizens who think they see something. For years now, the government has been advising citizens to report suspicious activity. Immunity opponents want government to turn this policy upside down, so that trial lawyers and groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations can extract civil damages from the tipsters when the tips cause innocent people to be pulled off airplanes or questioned by police. The current policy inconveniences some, to be sure, but it is necessary. Yet many Democrats strongly opposed commonsense efforts to grant immunity to tipsters acting in good faith.
The case which started the controversy, that of the "flying imams" in November, could have happened anywhere. A handful of U.S. Airways passengers reported what they considered frightening behavior — it certainly was provocative behavior — by a group of imams. The imams were taken off the plane, detained and questioned, after which they sued the airline and the "John Does." The lawsuit spurred Republican Reps. Peter King of New York and Steve Pearce of New Mexico to team up with Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Susan Collins, Maine Republican, to push for tipster immunity to become the law of the land. This made Mr. Thompson the only key committeeman to stand in opposition to the idea, ostensibly on the grounds of discrimination and racial or religious profiling.
Mr. Thompson and fellow Democrats opposed immunity vociferously, then quietly. Then they changed their arguments in renewed opposition. Finally this week, they caved. At the last moment, Mr. Thompson sought to exclude criminal behavior from the immunity language: Tipsters would have needed to assure the government that those suspicious vans or fertilizer purchases are most certainly terrorism-related and not possible signs of criminal activity. He also sought to strip the retroactivity provisions so that the suit against the "John Does" of November could move forward.
Who would have benefited? Aside from ending some inconveniences, the real beneficiaries would be trial lawyers and pressure groups like CAIR eager to pull down the nation's homeland-security procedures. Of course, trial lawyers and far-left anti-antiterrorism groups happen to be important sources of money and policy support for Democrats.
The frightening part is how close we came to open-season on citizen tipsters. As recently as Tuesday, the tipster-immunity language appeared to be dead.