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WASHINGTON — Washington “will do everything conceivable, everything humanly and technologically possible to preserve our way of life and our citizens,” says Tom Ridge, director of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems ready to threaten our way of life in the name of protecting us.

First, President George W. Bush wants a new Department of Homeland Security, to consolidate everything from border control to emergency relief to agricultural inspections. Second, the Justice Department is preparing Operation TIPS (terrorism information and prevention system).

Creating an intrusive new bureaucracy is a curiously liberal approach for a supposedly conservative president. Yet there is no reason to believe that another department will make America safer. Obviously, interagency cooperation and coordination are desirable, but consolidation won’t necessarily deliver either.

The experience of the Transportation Security Administration gives little cause for optimism. The TSA was supposed to improve airport employee quality, but instead retained most incumbents. The TSA has already run through most of its more than $2 billion budget, yet is likely to miss the statutory deadline for installing bomb-screening machines.

TIPS is an even worse idea. Obviously citizens should be alert and report potentially dangerous activities. Most important, they should maintain security at their own homes and businesses, and offer the last line of defense against would-be airline hijackers. But orchestrating a massive spying operation by Americans on Americans is quite different.

Snitches are unreliable. A decade ago Harvard University’s Project on Justice warned that informers routinely exaggerate and even fabricate. Many criminal convictions have been set aside after informants were exposed as liars.

U.S. government spying during the Vietnam War era was directed more at suppressing dissent than protecting national security; the FBI’s infamous Cointelpro program targeted Martin Luther King Jr., among others. During the Cold War, Washington directed much of its energy at people who, while moral idiots for backing the Soviet Union, never actually threatened America’s survival.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, federal surveillance efforts seem to have accelerated. Charlotte Twight, author of “Dependent on DC” (Palgrave Press), warns that “largely linked through an individual’s Social Security number, these [official] databases now empower the federal government to obtain an astonishingly detailed portrait of any person: the checks he writes, the types of causes he supports, what he says ‘privately’ to his doctor.”

Washington demonstrated its readiness to misuse access to personal information when the IRS released the names of individuals using disputed tax shelters.

Private snitches would be no better. World War I was notable for the demagogic abuse heaped upon so-called hyphenated Americans. More than a few “patriotic” citizens spied on their neighbors. That was better than in World War II, when Washington rounded up Japanese-Americans and confined them in camps. But it still wasn’t much of an example for a constitutional republic based upon individual liberty.

With TIPS, the administration would eventually enlist 11 million people, particularly those with access to not only the public square but private homes: postal employees, truck drivers, utility workers. These informants would report anything suspicious to the Justice Department.

Tom Ridge says “the last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans.” But that’s precisely what TIPS would encourage, as well as offer a backdoor means of avoiding constitutional limits on arrests and searches.

Government could make it easier for people to report obviously suspicious behavior: Middle Eastern men seeking to learn how to fly, but not land, commercial airliners comes to mind. That invitation, however, should be made to every American, backed by a toll-free number staffed by personnel with some ability to separate wheat from chaff.

Unfortunately, deputizing meter readers and mail carriers to be federal agents will encourage them to look for things to report, without helping them develop critical judgment about what is and isn’t significant. The result will be an avalanche of worthless tips.

At best federal computer drives would be filled with information on middle-aged males who own many guns, dark- complexioned men who criticize U.S. Mideast policy and women who dress in head scarves. At worst the TIPS database would list the trivial actions and opinions of millions of Americans, like the Stasi’s files in East Germany.

Homeland security is the federal government’s most important duty. Washington should reconsider its high-profile meddling abroad, such as stationing thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. The United States should also focus on securing air and sea space at home rather than defending prosperous allies and patrolling irrelevant civil wars abroad.

Washington should not suborn citizens to become meddlesome busybodies and official gossips, encouraged to see a terrorist behind every eccentric neighbor. Americans must never forget that they are defending a free society, not just a particular plot of land located in North America.

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