Under "Operation TIPS", transportation workers, utility crews and letter carriers could sign up to snoop on members of their communities. Attorney General Ashcroft argued such vigilance could thwart terrorists, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.
"You have the ability of people who have a regular perception, who understand what's out of order here, what's different here, and maybe something needs to be looked into," Ashcroft said.
But the concept of people spying on their neighbors incenses civil liberties advocates.
Said Bill Goodman of the Center For Constitutional Rights, "The idea of turning us into a society of snitches is a disturbing one, a troubling one and one in which this Administration should be ashamed."
And I.C. Smith, who spent 25 years at the FBI, says TIPS information could actually distract investigators.
"I think it has very little law enforcement benefit. In fact I think it actually has probably more of a down side than a benefit," Smith said.
Perspective TIPS volunteers are told to sign up on a government Web site.
Dave Lindorff, a writer for Salon magazine, did just that. But Lindorff found confusion when a Justice Department switchboard operator gave him a TIPS number that turned out to be for a television program.
"I called that number expecting to get an FBI operative to take
my information down and instead I got a voice that said "America's Most
Wanted," Lindorff said.
While "America's Most Wanted" did help the government field calls in
the anthrax scare, the program is not part of TIPS. And the Justice
Department says Lindorff's call was mistakenly routed -- TIPS phone banks are not yet operational.
"As far as I can see, the TIPS idea is nothing but a big PR operation to make it look like the Justice Department is doing something significant to attack terrorism," Lindorff said.
The Bush Administration has tried to gain support by promising that private homes will be off limits to snooping. But it may be too late. Congressional leaders in both parties are backing legislation to stop TIPS in its tracks.