Privacy takes another hit with return of Junior G-men

The Baltimore Sun

J. Edgar Hoover is grinning in his grave.

As reported by ABC's Brian Ross, the FBI has adopted a plan to recruit 15,000 covert informants in the United States to help keep America safe from terrorists, criminals, pickpockets, litterbugs, jaywalkers, people who cheat on eye exams and other public menaces.

At a cost of more than $22 million, the FBI will train its new "confidential human sources" to become the bureau's eyes and ears. Their job? Reporting to FBI officials anybody who is "suspicious."

The new program, says the FBI, is in direct response to a 2004 directive by President Bush to develop more "human intelligence capability." But it's nothing new at all. It's an instant replay of Mr. Hoover's famous Junior G-men, organized by the FBI prior to World War II.

Under Mr. Hoover's leadership, and inspired by a radio program of the same name, Junior G-men clubs sprang up all over America. Like law-and-order Boy Scouts, boys who belonged to Junior G-men wore a special uniform and badge and were deputized to roam the streets looking for suspicious characters, and report them to real G-men.

More recently, in the wake of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft tried something similar. He called it Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) - a domestic spying program in which workers and government employees, such as TV repairmen and mail carriers, would agree to report any suspicious activity they observed while doing their jobs. Even though Mr. Ashcroft defended TIPS as a legitimate extension of the war on terror, he was forced to drop the plan after the U.S. Postal Service refused to participate, citing problems with the First and Fourth amendments.

So far, Director Robert S. Mueller III's FBI hasn't come up with a name for his new program. May I suggest "Stasi"? After all, it's not being used anymore. And the FBI domestic spy program resembles nothing so much as the notorious Stasi of communist East Germany, where as many as one out of every 50 citizens signed up as "unofficial collaborators" to spy on each other.

But the FBI doesn't have to go so far back for plans on getting citizens to rat on fellow citizens. Saddam Hussein, for instance, had a very effective network of government spies, called the Mukhabarat. Or the FBI could set up the American equivalent of Saudi Arabia's religious police, a few of whom were arrested this month for beating a man to death after finding a bottle of alcohol in his apartment.

Whatever they call it, the horde of FBI collaborators is one more assault by the Bush administration on the right of privacy. Unless Congress intervenes to stop it, the FBI domestic spying program will join the Patriot Act, the National Security Agency phone taps and the Pentagon's secret TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) database as one more assault on our basic liberties - all justified under the guise of Mr. Bush's so-called war on terror.

ABC reports that there may be one consolation. Originally, the FBI considered putting domestic spies through the same training courses used by the CIA to recruit spies in foreign countries. According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, it's a good thing they dropped that plan: "U.S. intelligence officers abroad can use bribery, extortion and other patently illegal acts to corral sources into working for them. You're not supposed to do that in the United States." Which, of course, doesn't mean they won't.

What's even more disturbing than the idea that the FBI would set up a huge domestic spying program is the fact that most Americans will probably accept this latest manifestation of the price we have to pay for fighting terror. In fact, the opposite is true. Every time we give up one inch of freedom, the terrorists win.

Don't you feel safer knowing the FBI will soon have a plan in place to spy more effectively on the ACLU, PETA, Quakers, and other suspicious characters?

As for our civil liberties? Don't worry about it. We weren't using them anyway.

Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show and author of "How the Republicans Stole Religion." His e-mail is:

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