Desperately Seeking Homeland Defenders

On July 30, the USA Freedom Corps celebrated its six-month anniversary with the unveiling of a "breakthrough" new website, and a new public service advertising campaign. According to the website, the ad campaign (titled "Everyone Can Do Something") features "the President and several celebrities, including New York Yankee Mariano Rivera, actress Angie Harmon, and former Senators Robert Dole and John Glenn...[and] includes television and radio ads in English and Spanish, as well as print ads and web banners."

The USA Freedom Corps website offers folks an opportunity to sign up to volunteer in a number of areas including animals and environment, arts and culture, children and youth, civic and community, education and technology, faith-based organizations, health, human services, and public safety and disaster prep. It's a three-step process. You choose your area of interest, specify the zip code or state where you prefer to work, and then are transported from the USA Freedom Corps site to a site called Network for Good where thousands of volunteer opportunities are listed.

In mid-July, the Corporation for National and Community Service (part of the USA Freedom Corps) announced it was awarding a total of $10.3 million in competitive grants to 43 non-profit and public organizations in 26 states and the District of Columbia. According to a USA Freedom Corps press release: "These groups will support recruitment of volunteers for local efforts to develop disaster response plans, expand Neighborhood Watch and Community Emergency Response Teams, establish Medical Reserve Corps, train youth to cope with disasters, disseminate information on bioterrorism, and assist ham radio operators and volunteer pilots in responding to disasters."

Since the beginning of his administration, President George W. Bush has placed an extraordinary emphasis on volunteerism -- talking repeatedly about building "a new culture of responsibility." In January, during his State of the Union address, he outlined plans for the USA Freedom Corps initiative. He called on every American to donate 4,000 hours of volunteer public service in their lifetimes. The president likes to think that America will be changed by "the gathering momentum of millions of acts of kindness and decency."

The USA Freedom Corps is not only one of the major cornerstones of the president's domestic policy initiatives—it also fits squarely within the evolving set of "homeland defense" projects.

According to the USA Freedom Corps website, the project intends to "work with local officials and community groups to offer expanded service opportunities for Americans at home and abroad." Under the USA Freedom Corps umbrella is AmeriCorps, the Senior Corps, the Peace Corps, and the Citizens Corps (which specifically provides volunteer opportunities for the "war against terrorism").

The USA Freedom Corps is presided over by John Bridgeland, whose task, according to a late-March story in the Washington Post, is to "amass an army of citizen-volunteers." The Post reported that Bridgeland "drove President Bush's agenda as the influential director of the White House Domestic Policy Council... handl[ing] a variety of policy issues during his first year in the White House, including work on energy issues and the controversial faith-based initiatives, [and] colleagues say he was most passionate when talking about public service."

The Citizen Corps is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). One of its tasks is to create community-based Citizen Corps Councils. These Councils are made up of law enforcement officials, fire and emergency medical services' personnel, and citizens from business ("especially security firms"), schools, religious institutions, health care facilities, public works and other essential community sectors. The Councils are charged with "developing community action plans, assessing possible threats, identifying local resources and coordinating other Citizen Corps programs."

Thus far, the folks over at the Citizen Corps are pleased with the public's response. According the June 21, 2002 issue of Citizen Corps E-News, more than 36,000 people have signed on as volunteers and 69 communities have registered their Citizen Corps Councils.

For conservatives, the AmeriCorps program remains one of the most controversial of the holdover projects of the USA Freedom Corps initiative. Matthew Spalding, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, and Krista Kafer, Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation, believe that AmeriCorps "remains a deeply flawed program that hinders rather than advances the President's larger goals."

In their June 28, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, Spalding and Kafer write: "Far from encouraging the personal responsibility and independent citizenship proper to American self-government and a vibrant volunteer sector, AmeriCorps promotes a government-centered idea of social service."

More volunteer opportunities

At Ohio State University's graduation ceremony this past June, the president announced the creation of the "USA Freedom Corps Network," defining it as a "partnership of the broadest group of service organizations ever assembled" according to Citizen Corps E-News. "The USA Freedom Corps Network brings together America's Promise, the Points of Light Foundation, The United Way, Volunteer Match, ServeNet and many other organizations to form a comprehensive clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities. This network will enable Americans to find volunteer opportunities within their neighborhoods and communities and in countries around the globe."

"Meet the Challenge" is another new program launched in early June on the National Sheriff's Association (NSA) website. This development follows a March meeting organized by the Department of Justice at which Attorney General John Ashcroft met with representatives from more than 300 Neighborhood Watch groups. At the meeting, he unveiled an initiative aimed at expanding the mission of the National Sheriff's Association's National Neighborhood Watch program.

The proposed expansion and increased funding for the project has raised a red flag for civil liberties groups. According to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Aschroft's plan "extends the neighborhood watches to include terrorism prevention, a move critics fear could fuel Cold War-style discrimination and censorship." The ACLU focused on what it called an "ongoing pattern of erosion of basic civil liberties in America in the name of unproven security measures." ACLU President Nadine Strossen said that "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."

The Attorney General announced the granting of $1.9 million in federal funds to help the National Sheriff's Association double the number of participant groups to 15,000 nationwide. In addition, he noted that National Neighborhood Watch would be integrated into President Bush's new Citizen Corps initiative.

At the NSA website, "citizens and law enforcement agencies can record online each new Neighborhood Watch group they are involved in starting or are working to revitalize. You can register your Neighborhood Watch group by logging on to the website and clicking on "Meet the Challenge." You can also receive a copy of NSA's Neighborhood Watch implementation manual and other crime prevention materials by clicking on "Download Watch Materials."

The Citizens Corps E-News also announced that the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) at the Department of Health and Human Services would soon launch new programs "designed to promote development of Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) units at the community level."

Operation TIPS update

By now, almost everyone who has paid any attention to what's going on in the domestic "war against terrorism" has heard of Operation TIPS (the Terrorist Information and Prevention System). After months in development, the program—which is to be run out of the Department of Justice and to launch sometime in August—intends to use volunteer workers to be on the lookouts for "suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity." When TIPS was finally exposed to the public a few weeks back, it was greeted negatively by civil libertarians and a number of conservative commentators.

The Homeland Security Bill, passed by the House of Representatives in late July, attempts to kill Operation TIPS. The bill, which passed by a 295-132 vote, prohibits programs such as the proposed TIPS. CNS News reports that Title VII, Subtitle G, Chapter 97, Section 770 of the Act states: "Any and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) are hereby prohibited."

Responding to a late-July demonstration against Operation TIPS at the Department of Justice, Mark Corallo, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs said that the program "is still under development. There have been a lot of misconceptions about the program, and we will clarify those in the coming days. That's all we have to say."

Operation TIPS is not the only domestic spying plan being developed by the administration. Veteran Village Voice reporter James Ridgeway, writing in the July 24 issue, called attention to the president's plans to use churches as portals for neighborhood watch groups. In an April speech in Knoxville, Tennessee, Ridgeway noted that Bush "spoke of the need for a Citizen Corps and... urged citizens to gather around their religious institutions. "It means organizing a program in your church or your synagogue or your mosque," he said, "to help hear the universal call of loving somebody just like you'd like to be loved yourself."

The Citizens' Preparedness Guide, takes Bush's "universal" love call one step farther by listing "Places of Worship" in its table of contents and "suggest[ing] that in addition to schools and other public places, churches could be useful in making 'preparedness a part of [people's] daily lives... Places of Worship provide a valuable support network and an opportunity to share information about preparedness.'" And, it adds: "Consider incorporating your place of worship into your Neighborhood Watch Programs... Hold meetings to discuss preparedness and distribute copies of this guide to your congregation."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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