Shrouded in Secrecy

Human Rights

In the course of reporting on Operation TIPS -- the Terrorist Information and Prevention System -- I had the opportunity to speak several times with a spokesperson from the Department of Justice in March of this year. Although President Bush publicly announced the formation of the USA Freedom Corps -- which included the Citizens Corps that Operation TIPS is part of -- during his State of the Union address, officials at the Justice Department refused to discuss the details of the project.

What's more, when I called to get comments from the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, everyone I spoke with in those offices was completely unaware of the project. (For more on Operation TIPS and other threats to civil liberties, see: "Spying eyes: Operation TIPS will have workers searching for 'suspicious terrorist activity'".)

On the morning of July 28, I once again called the Department of Justice to see if I could get an update on the progress of Operation TIPS. This time, the same spokeswoman at Justice was even more adamant in her refusal to talk about the details of the project. "All I can tell you," she said, "is that the program will be launched in August and we will be happy to speak to you more in August." End of telephone call.

As I reported a week ago, Operation TIPS -- which functions under the auspices of the Justice Department -- intends to train one million workers to be on the lookout for "suspicious and potentially-terrorist related activity." The Administration has requested $8 million for TIPS.

In late March a Justice Department spokeswoman told me that Operation TIPS was a pilot project developed by a "working group" made up of people from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and several other agencies. When asked which other agencies were involved in the project and the identity of members of the "working group," she said she was unable to disclose their names. Since the project was still evolving, she added, it was "too soon to speak to the people involved."

Although what she termed the "industries" (or the sectors of workers) had not been selected at the time of our conversations, the DOJ spokeswoman pointed out that the project may involve truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains and utility employees -- workers who in the course of their daily activities are well-situated to be "extra eyes and ears" in the struggle against terrorism. When asked if any unions were aware of or involved in developing the project, she said that to the best of her knowledge they were not. She did not rule out their participation somewhere down the line.

While the fine points of the program were under construction and weren't readily available to the public, the spokeswoman at the Department of Justice made it clear that the goal of Operation TIPS was to "report suspicious activity and not to report suspicious looking people." Once it's up and running, it will be "developing educational materials for the industries selected to participate in the pilot project," she also pointed out. The Operation TIPS website is a relatively uninformative site that provides only the barest of details.

Unions & civil liberties organizations kept in the dark

So why, as of late March, were unions uninformed about Operation TIPS, a project that would potentially involve one million workers?

David Bacon, veteran labor reporter and photojournalist, believes that "for the most part the administration doesn't think unions are all that relevant, therefore they might as well go directly to the workers." The administration might also be hesitant to "stir up a hornet's nest since many unions are deeply concerned about civil liberties," he added. Finally, pointed out, "historically, law enforcement agencies generally have little trust for unions, having been on the opposite side of the barricades in most union struggles."

"With so many new initiatives coming out of the Sept 11 tragedy, it's hard to keep up with them all," Chuck Mack told me when I interviewed him about Operation TIPS in late March. Mack, the West Region Vice President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, advised that "we should approach new projects like TIPS with caution and great care. Too often the devil is in the details." The Bush administration has "produced a whole range of ideas that must be questioned to see whether they are worthwhile," he added.

I asked Mack why he thought the administration had not contacted unions while the project was still in development. "That's a good question," he said. "The administration is not all that inclusive when it comes to labor. We might raise questions about what the expectations are; it would probably be easier for them if we weren't involved."

In the course of researching this story I found that the program, if not shrouded in secrecy, was not sharing information with potential partners.

After Teamsters spokesperson Rob Black had a chance to look into Operation TIPS, he told me that the union's legislative staff "is going over the TIPS proposal to see how it would affect our members." He said they had contacted the Department of Justice and "had an informal back-and-forth" about the program. "When we see how it affects our members we will act appropriately," he added.

At the Washington, DC offices of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the public relations head Drew VonBergen indicated he had heard of Operation TIPS but was "not aware that any formal notification" had been given to the union. He had "nothing further to say about TIPS right now," he added.

The initial responses from the spokespersons, respectively, at the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO Teamsters Union offices, the Letters Carriers Union in California, the New York City press office of the ACLU, and the Washington offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were all pretty much the same: No one was familiar with the details of Operation TIPS!

Threatening civil liberties

"There is nothing wrong with the concept of Operation TIPS per se," said the ACLU's Rachel King, "but there needs to be careful oversight and guidelines in place regulating how the information will be used." King, Legislative Counsel for the civil liberties organization, said she had a number of questions about TIPS including where "the information provided would be stored and whether it would be shared by law enforcement agencies." She also wondered "if Operation TIPS was a clever new way for the government to get around the Fourth Amendment."

Hussein Ibish, Communications Director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, hadn't heard of Operation TIPS either. "Unless we know more about the program it would be difficult to comment," he said. "The notion, in and of itself, isn't offensive. It depends of what kind of safeguards will be put into place to insure that the program doesn't turn into a vehicle for the expression of prejudice."

Ibish added that he would have the organization's attorney call Ralph Boyd, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and "ask him about the program and see if he's heard of it."

In a late-June follow-up phone call, Ibish said that his organization had tried to get more information out of the Department of Justice but they were unsuccessful. "We asked all the important questions," he said, "but they prefer to wait until the program is actually up and running before they talk about it."

Finally, when I asked Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) about Operation TIPS, he took a deep breath and noted that "it appears we are being transformed from an information society to an informant society." As the ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight Committee's National Security Oversight Subcommittee and one of the strongest defenders of civil liberties in Congress, Kucinich said he intended to look into the program as soon as possible.

"Do the math," he said. "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 July 4th rolls around, people concerned with civil liberties are "doing the math" in a number of areas that have increasingly come under attack by the Bush Administration. And the tipsters from Operation TIPS have yet to hit the streets!

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