BOB GARFIELD: If you jumped in that scene in the Sound of Music when the Hitler youth blew the whistle on the family von Trapp, you gotta love Attorney General John Ashcroft's Operation TIPS program -- the Terrorism Information and Prevention System. The scheme for getting Americans to report their neighbors' suspicious activities created an avalanche of criticism from civil libertarians, but if reporter Dave Lindorff's story on Salon.com is right, the Justice Department has found help in intelligence gathering from an unlikely source. Lindorff joins us now. Citizen Dave, welcome to OTM.
DAVE LINDORFF: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I read your story, and I-- had to just be certain that it wasn't some sort of hoax. The U.S. Government is cooperating with America's Most Wanted in search of terrorists. Tell me what you learned and how you learned it.
DAVE LINDORFF: [LAUGHS] I-- was assigned by Salon to do the story on TIPS, so I researched it and stumbled on their web site where you could sign up to be a TIPS volunteer spy, so I, I signed up, and shortly afterwards got an e-mail back welcoming me to the program; it was kind of a canned e-mail. But nothing happened, so I called the attorney general's office, got their switchboard and I said hello I'm a volunteer in the TIPS program and I want to do my bit for fighting terrorism but I don't know where to call with my tips, and the woman said oh, well we've set up an number with the FBI -- it's an 800 number --for you to call and so I dialed it, and I-- I thoroughly [LAUGHS] expected at that point to get some FBI phone person -- that was what I was expecting, but the-- person at the other end of the line instead was this woman who said America's Most Wanted, [LAUGHS] and-- [LAUGHTER] and, and I was just stunned, you know? I really was taken aback. I said well isn't this the FBI? And she said no, don't you know the program -- America's Most Wanted? And I said oh, yeah, I know the program but I was expecting to get the FBI -the Justice Department gave me this number to call as a TIPS volunteer, and that's when she said we've been asked to take the FBI's TIPS calls for them.
BOB GARFIELD:The whole thing has a quality of somehow splitting the difference between East German Stasi state said recruiting all citizens to spy on other citizens and the Keystone cops.
DAVE LINDORFF: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: What are we to make of all of this?
DAVE LINDORFF: It is so silly. You know the original idea was to have 24 million Americans calling in tips on their neighbors, and that is like the Stasi, and one of the wonderful stories about the Stasi was that they actually had warehouses all over the country stuffed will files that they never even had the personnel to look at. So think of the wasted FBI time going through all this crap.
BOB GARFIELD:Now we spoke to the Justice Department unofficially and also to America's Most Wanted, and they say they have no relationship whatsoever when it comes to the TIPS program.
DAVE LINDORFF: Well first of all, I mean my reputation's on the line here. John Walsh, who's the host and producer of America's Most Wanted should be able to prove it, because if he's running a legitimate program to take call in tips, he should be taping those calls. And if I'm telling a whopper, he should have it on tape. And I, and I would argue that probably the Justice Department does the same thing. I suspect they tape their calls too.
BOB GARFIELD:Has there been a groundswell of interest on a grassroots level for this? I mean how many other junior G-Men like yourself are out there trying to get information to the FBI.
DAVE LINDORFF: I have not been able to find a figure of how many people signed up, but now what's happened is on-- Tuesday I got a mass e-mail from the TIPS program, and it said: As you're probably aware, TIPS is a hot line reporting system. Unlike other citizens [car ??] programs which invite the participation of the general public, only those who work in trucking, maritime, shipping and mass transit industries will be eligible to participate in this information referral service. Now that is not what they were telling people a week ago. Back when I was signing up, it was for the general public.
BOB GARFIELD: So if your bum knee keeps you out of the military, you know, you can always try to latch on with UPS.
DAVE LINDORFF:Yeah, well actually I used to drive trailer trucks. For the last 30 years I haven't, but I've maintained my class-1 trailer license so I've been thinking of [LAUGHS] joining the Independent Truckers Association and then asking if I can re-- re-up.
BOB GARFIELD: All right well-- keep on truckin.'
DAVE LINDORFF: Okay, thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Dave Lindorff is a journalist who writes regularly for Salon.com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next up, why lawyers love eBay, and why everything you know is wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.
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