- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Operation TIPS should be given a chance to prove its anti-terrorism worth. It is an impending Department of Justice pilot program to encourage private citizens in the ordinary course of business to report publicly observable suspicious activity to homeland security agencies.
Detractors of TIPS are demanding an abortion before TIPS' birth, denouncing it as an updated version of George Orwell's "1984," an army of government-sanctioned Peeping Toms, or an Un-American equivalent of East Germany's despised Stasi.
On Friday, a House special committee on homeland security headed by Majority Leader Dick Army, Texas Republican, approved legislation that would scuttle TIPS.
Civilized societies are invariably bedeviled by the search for an enlightened balance between law enforcement and privacy. The right to privacy the right to be left alone from government snooping or unreasonable searches or seizures is not absolute. Conspiring in the home to poison a municipal water supply is punishable. Warrants based on probable cause may be issued to search the home to thwart the suspected conspiracy.
Law enforcement, like privacy, is also a matter of degree. Thus, government cannot order the construction of all houses with transparent glass to assist in detecting crime from the sidewalk. Neither can it do away with the presumption of innocence, the right against compulsory self-incrimination, or the ordinary requirement of warrants before criminal searches, even though the limitations enable an indefinite number to circumvent justice.
A sensible demarcation line between privacy and law enforcement requires scrupulous attention to detail. The gravity of the targeted crime, the potential for abuses, the encroachment on seclusion and the danger of equating nonconformity with criminality should be considered.
Contrary to its shrill critics, Operation TIPS is not facially indefensible as a contribution to defending the American people from terrorism. It should, however, be reviewed by Congress at six or 12 month intervals to determine whether its anti-terrorism achievements outweigh any abuses, including gratuitous inroads on cherished privacy.
The TIPS program is slated for Department of Justice inauguration next month in 10 pilot cities. It seeks volunteers whose jobs take them through neighborhoods, along coasts and on highways or public transit for instance, truckers, mail carriers, train conductors, ship captains and utility employees. They will be asked to report through a central phone number any activity in public view (but not in the home or other private domains) suggestive of terrorism or related mischief because deviant from what is customarily observed. No serious invasion of privacy is at stake.
As the Supreme Court has underscored, what is exposed to public view can be employed by police to investigate or to prosecute without infringing reasonable expectations of privacy.
The TIPS program may prove worrisome, nevertheless, on various counts. Participants might exploit the reporting system to conduct vendettas against personal enemies. Government files on dissidents or the unorthodox may be maintained to smear or intimidate reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover's abuses.
Utility workers or repairmen may report what they see in the home for example, multiple copies of the Holy Koran despite the TIPS injunction to stick solely to what can be seen in plain view by the public. A volunteer whose report does not occasion a rapid Justice Department reaction might decide to take the law into his own hands.
On the other hand, the simple knowledge that TIPS is under way may deter. Terrorists will not know the details of its efficacy. Moreover, experience teaches that the lion's share of terrorists are untutored in American customs or mores; they are prone to leave "fingerprints" observable by TIPS volunteers as they plot their abominations.
The potential abuses of TIPS can be addressed by statutory prohibitions. Civil fines should be imposed on participants who knowingly or maliciously report information derived from private places or to further a personal grudge. Additionally, no person with a history of violence or comparable anti-social conduct should be eligible for TIPS.
Community vigilance can work in particular cases, as in the apprehension of the suspected kidnapper and killer of Samantha Runnion, a 5-year-old girl in Stanton, Calif. According to published reports, Orange County Sheriff Michael Corona said thousands of tips from the public and help from the news media in circulating a description of the suspect brought quick resolution of the manhunt. Sheriff Corona urged that the stream of information that poured in from callers continue despite the suspect's arrest, and added, "You [the news media and the public] have been our allies all along. This in no way concludes our investigation. We are still trying to make sure we bring this man to justice."
The TIPS program is different from capturing the suspect in Samantha's case because the earmarks of terrorist plotting are elusive. The program thus might yield all chaff and no wheat. But no stone should be left unturned in our fight to thwart a second edition of September 11. With proper safeguards, isn't a carefully monitored experiment with TIPS justified?

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