With the familiar strains of "Heeeeere's Johnny" resounding throughout the auditorium, professional sidekick Ed McMahon introduced Attorney General John Ashcroft to an enthusiastic audience of representatives from more than 300 Neighborhood Watch groups meeting in Washington, D.C., in early March. Ashcroft was unveiling a new and expanded mission for the Neighborhood Watch Program. He announced a grant of $1.9 million in federal funds to help the National Sheriffs' Association double the number of participant groups to 15,000 nationwide.
Up to now, Neighborhood Watch has been a fairly low-key crime-prevention tool focused on break-ins and burglaries. But all that is changing, as the Bush Administration has earmarked it for a broader role--surveillance in the service of the "war on terrorism."
"President Bush has announced that, with the help of the National Sheriffs' Association, the Neighborhood Watch Program will be taking on new significance," according to the government's web page at citizencorps.gov/watch.html . "Community residents will be provided with information which will enable them to recognize signs of potential terrorist activity, and to know how to report that activity, making these residents a critical element in the detection, prevention, and disruption of terrorism." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be supervising the program. "Terrorism prevention" is now part of the "routine mission" of the Neighborhood Watch Program, the web site says.
This "could fuel Cold War-style discrimination and censorship," says the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees the Neighborhood Watch initiative as part of an "ongoing pattern of erosion of basic civil liberties in America in the name of unproven security measures."
"By asking neighborhood groups to report on people who are 'unfamiliar' or who act in ways that are 'suspicious' or 'not normal,' our government is unconstructively fear-mongering, and fueling the already rampant ethnic and religious scapegoating," says ACLU President Nadine Strossen.
The new thrust of Neighborhood Watch is just part of the Bush Administration's plan to set up a whole network of citizen snitches. In August, for instance, it will unveil a new Justice Department initiative called Operation TIPS, which stands for Terrorist Information and Prevention System.
Operation TIPS "will be a nationwide program giving millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity," says the citizencorps.gov web site. Involving one million workers in ten cities during the pilot stage, Operation TIPS will be "a national reporting system. . . . Every participant in this new program will be given an Operation TIPS information sticker to be affixed to the cab of their vehicle or placed in some other public location so that the toll-free number is readily available."
A Justice Department spokeswoman says TIPS was developed by a working group made up of people from the Department of Justice and several other agencies. When asked about the identity of members of the working group, she says she is unable to disclose their names at this time, adding it is "too soon to speak to the people involved."
TIPS will involve workers who, in the course of their daily activities, are well situated to be "extra eyes and ears" in the struggle against terrorism, she says. The mission is to "report suspicious activity and not to report suspicious-looking people."
But that does not reassure Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. When I ask him about Operation TIPS and its one million snitches, he takes a deep breath.
"It appears we are being transformed from an information society to an informant society," he says. "Do the math. One tip a day per person and within a year the whole country will be turned in, and we can put up a big fence around the country, and we'll all be safe."
As the ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight Committee's National Security Oversight Subcommittee, Kucinich says he intends to look into the program as soon as possible.
At the moment, few people are even aware of Operation TIPS. The ACLU, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO had not yet heard about it when I approached them in March.
Given Operation TIPS's interest in having truckers double as informants, I asked the Justice Department spokesperson whether any unions were aware of, or involved in, developing the project. She said that to the best of her knowledge they weren't.
So why aren't unions up to date one this new job duty? "That's a good question," says Chuck Mack, the West Region Vice President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "We should approach new projects like TIPS with caution and great care," Mack says. "Too often, the devil is in the details."
The ACLU echoes Mack's caution. "We have deep concerns," says Rachel King, legislative counsel for the ACLU, "about the way that particular groups are being encouraged to act as agents and spy on other groups."
Operation TIPS and the new mission for Neighborhood Watch flow out of Bush's State of the Union speech, where he urged every American to commit 4,000 hours, or at least two years of their lives, to national service. By executive order, he established the USA Freedom Corps as the umbrella organization for this effort.
"Through the USA Freedom Corps, he wants to help every American to answer the call to service by strengthening and expanding service opportunities for them to protect our homeland, to support our communities, and to extend American compassion around the world," says the usafreedomcorps.gov web site. The President is requesting more than $560 million in new funds in Fiscal Year 2003 to support the new initiative.
Freedom Corps covers the Peace Corps, as well as AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps, but even these last two groups will now have a security role. Both will be involved in "fingerprinting" so as to relieve overworked police officers, and AmeriCorps will be "creating 'reserve service corps, in conjunction with states, to support homeland security throughout the country," according to the USA Freedom Corps Policy Book. (By the way, AmeriCorps will also support "faith-based organizations.")
Operation TIPS and Neighborhood Watch are under a different section of Freedom Corps called Citizen Corps. The goal of Citizen Corps is "to engage citizens in homeland security," the handbook says. Citizen Corps Councils will be established in each community, and they will "include leaders from law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, businesses, community-based institutions, schools, places of worship, health care institutions, public works, and other key sectors."
In addition to a revamped Neighborhood Watch Program and Operation TIPS, the Citizen Corps consists of a Volunteers in Police Service Program, Medical Reserve Corps, and Community Emergency Response Teams. Citizen Corps "will be coordinated by FEMA," the web site says.
Bush's Freedom Corps has been a blessing for Neighborhood Watch Institute, based in Santa Fe Springs, California. Since 1982, the institute, a folksy operation, has been marketing the accouterments necessary for warning criminals that they are being watched. The organization boasts that its "complete line of crime prevention materials" is used by more than 1,500 police and sheriff agencies, local Neighborhood Watch groups, and homeowner associations. A basic kit includes handbooks for identifying suspicious criminal activity, stickers, signs, and decals. It costs about $125.
Shortly after September 11, the institute began offering "Homeland Security Street Signs," which notify the community and criminals that "all suspicious persons and activities are immediately reported" to local police officials. Bill Preciado, the manager of the institute, says that it came up with the idea for Homeland Security signs before the Office of Homeland Security was established. The institute is in the process of putting together a handbook advising people how to "identify terrorist activity in their neighborhoods," he says.
While "business went up immediately after September 11, it has been leveling off in the past few months," he says. Although he's heard about the new Justice Department Neighborhood Watch initiative and has sent an e-mail to the Department of Justice telling the agency about the company's services, his company "hasn't been contacted by any official government agency." Preciado is hopeful that the new interest and emphasis on Neighborhood Watch groups "will be good for business."
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right wing movements. He is a regular contributor to Working Assets's news site, workingforchange.com. Re-search assistance by Laura Ross.