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Surely You're Joking, Mr. Ashcroft

The Sydney Morning Herald is running a story in today's edition, "US planning to recruit one in 24 Americans as citizen spies". The allegations in it are astonishing:

The Bush Administration aims to recruit millions of United States citizens as domestic informants in a program likely to alarm civil liberties groups.

The Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS, means the US will have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police. The program would use a minimum of 4 per cent of Americans to report "suspicious activity"...

A pilot program, described on the government Web site www.citizencorps.gov, is scheduled to start next month in 10 cities, with 1 million informants participating in the first stage. Assuming the program is initiated in the 10 largest US cities, that will be 1 million informants for a total population of almost 24 million, or one in 24 people.

Are these allegations true? Yes, they are, as can be seen from the government's own information. From the Citizen Corps Website's page on Operation TIPS:

Operation TIPS -- the Terrorism Information and Prevention System -- 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. Operation TIPS, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice, will begin as a pilot program in 10 cities that will be selected.

Operation TIPS, involving 1 million workers in the pilot stage, will be a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity. 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 reporting number is readily available.

Everywhere in America, a concerned worker can call a toll-free number and be connected directly to a hotline routing calls to the proper law enforcement agency or other responder organizations when appropriate.

Yes, our government is recruiting 1 million people in the 10 largest cities... and I'll take the Herald's word for it that those cities total 24 million people. 1 in 24 people as informers. Assuming for a moment that this is the misguided effort of people with basically good intentions, have they stopped for a moment to think about the implications of what they're doing? Have they stopped for a moment to think about how such a system could be misused?

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