Conservative Watch


Bill Berkowitz

Neighborhood
Watch 


In
early March, consumate pitchman and former Johnny Carson sidekick,
Ed McMahon introduced Attorney General John Ashcroft to  an
enthusiastic audience of representatives from more than 300 Neighborhood
Watch groups gathered in Washington, DC. The attorney general was
there to unveil a new mission for the National Sheriff’s Association’s
National Neighborhood Watch program. He announced a grant of $1.9
million in federal funds to help the NSA double the number of participant
groups to 15,000 nationwide. He also revealed its integration into
President Bush’s new USA Freedom Corps initiative.  

While
President Bush’s USA Freedom Corps initiative builds on the
community service traditions of Americorps, the Peace Corps, and
the Neighborhood Watch programs, it also calls for workers and neighbors
to enlist as citizen spies on the home front. “Through the
Neighborhood Watch program, we will weave a seamless web of prevention
of terrorism that brings together citizens and law enforcement,”
Ash- croft said. 

To
boost participation in the program, a Justice Department press release
announced that the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) had
unveiled a Public Service Announcement (PSA) called “United
for a Stronger America.” In partnership with the Department
of Justice, the Crime Prevention Coalition of America, and the Advertising
Council, the ad campaign is aimed at encouraging local communities
to initiate more Neighborhood Watch programs. 

The
PSA campaign also suggests citizens call and order a 24-page “Citizens’
Preparedness Guidebook,” which contains “tips on emergency
preparedness at home, at work, when out and about, and in the community;
ideas on developing an evacuation plan; tips on reporting emergencies
or suspicious activities; information on traveling safely at home
and abroad; ideas about voluntary civic activities that can strengthen
communities; and a list of resources, including phone and fax numbers
and websites” (the “Guidebook” can be downloaded
at www.citizencorps.gov/guidebook). 

For
years, National Neighborhood Watch (NNW) has been a community-based
program bringing local residents together with law enforcement officials
to discuss and mobilize to prevent neighborhood crime. According
to the Washington Post, NNW’s nearly 50 million
participants across the United States have made it “the largest
in a patchwork of programs that enlist residents to help police
fight local crime.” 

In
1972, the NSA received its first funding from the Law Enforcement
Assistance Administration. What had been a fairly low-key, but vigilant,
crime prevention tool focusing on neighborhood break-ins and burglaries,
was now earmarked for a broader role—surveillance in the service
of the “war on terrorism.”  

The
proposed expansion and increased funding for the project raised
a red flag for civil liberties groups. According to a March 8 press
release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Ashcroft’s
plan “extends the neighborhood watches to include terrorism
prevention, a move critics’ fear could fuel Cold War-style
discrimination and censorship.” 

The
attorney general’s initiative should be good news for the Santa
Fe Springs, California-based National Neighborhood Watch Institute
(NNWI). The organization boasts that its “complete line of
crime prevention materials” is used by more than 1,500 police
and sheriff agencies, local Neighborhood Watch groups, homeowner
associations, and individuals “involved in crime prevention
activities” across the country. Despite the seriousness of
its mission, it has been a folksy operation, handing out signs,
window warning decals, and labels. 

Shortly
after September 11, the Institute began offering “Homeland
Security Street Signs,” which notify the community and criminals
that “all suspicious persons and activities are immediately
reported” to local police officials. Bill Preciado, the manager
of the Institute said they came up with the idea for Homeland Security
signs before the Office of Homeland Security had been established.
They are in the process of putting together a handbook advising
people how to “identify terrorist activity in their neighborhoods,”
he added. 


Citizen Corps 


In
his State of the Union address, the president announced his new
service initiative—the USA Freedom Corps—and called on
all Americans to volunteer the equivalent of 2 years, or 4,000 hours,
over a lifetime. According to a USA Freedom Corps handbook, the
president is “requesting” more than $560 million in new
funds in Fiscal Year 2003 to support the new initiative. 

According
to a White House press release, one avenue for volunteering is the
Citizens Corps (CC), which will “engage citizens directly in
improving homeland security.” 

The
Citizen Corps, coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), will create community-based Citizen Corps councils charged
with “developing community action plans, assessing possible
threats, identifying local resources and coordinating other Citizen
Corps programs.” These councils will consist of law enforcement
leaders, fire and emergency medical services personnel, and citizens
from business (“especially security firms”), schools,
places of worship, health care facilities, public works, and other
key community sectors. 

The
White House release said that the president would request $144 million
“in matching funds to support the formation and training of
local Citizen Corps Councils. CC volunteers will be able to participate
in a variety of programs that match their skills and abilities.” 


Operation Tips 


In
addition to reinvigorated Neighborhood Watch Programs, a Volunteers
in Police Service Program, Medical Reserve Corps, and Community
Emergency Response Teams, the Citizens Corps calls for setting up
Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. 

Operation
TIPS, which comes under the auspices of the Justice Department,
intends to train one million workers who in the course of their
daily activities will act as tipsters on the lookout for “suspicious
and potentially terrorist related activity.” The Administration
has requested $8 million for TIPS. 

In
March, a Justice Department spokesperson told me that Operation
TIPS is a pilot project developed by a “working group”
made up of people from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and several
other agencies. When asked about the identity of members of the
“working group,” she said she was unable to disclose their
names at this time. She said that since the project was still evolving,
it was “too soon to speak to the people involved.”  

Although
the “industries,” or sectors of workers, have not yet
been selected, the DOJ spokesperson stated that the project may
involve truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains,
and utility employees—workers who in the course of their daily
activities are well-situated to be “extra eyes and ears”
in the struggle against terrorism. When asked if unions were aware
of or involved in developing the project, she said that to the best
of her knowledge they weren’t. She didn’t rule out their
participation somewhere down the line. 

So
why are unions being kept in the dark? David Bacon, labor reporter
and photojournalist, believes there are several reasons. “For
the most part,” he said, “the administration doesn’t
think unions are all that relevant, therefore they might as well
go directly to the workers.” The Administration might also
be concerned about “stirring up a hornets nest, since many
unions are concerned about civil liberties,” he added. 

In
the course of researching this story, I found that the program was
shrouded in secrecy. The initial responses from spokespeople at
the headquarters of the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters Union in Washington,
DC, the press office of the ACLU in New York City, and the Washington
offices of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were
the same—no one had heard of Operation TIPS. 

After
Rob Black, spokesperson for the Teamsters, had a chance to look
into Operation TIPS, he told me that the union’s legislative
staff “is going over the TIPS proposal to see how it would
effect our members.” 

At
the Washington, DC offices of the National Association of Letter
Carriers, the head of public relations, Drew VonBergen, indicated
he had heard of Operation TIPS but was “not aware that any
formal notification” had been given to the union. He had “nothing
further to say about TIPS right now,” he added. 

According
to the TIPS website, “Every participant 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”
(see www. citizencorps.gov/tips). 

Participants
in the program are being encouraged to create a “record of
service”—a private journal of each individual’s volunteer
time and experiences—at the Citizens Corps website. 

What
constitutes “suspicious terrorist activity” nearly one
year after September 11? With a permanent war on terrorism, it’s
anybody’s guess.  


CSIS 


A
number of right-wing think tanks, including
the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) to the
Heritage Foundation, have developed a homeland security project. 

In
late-November 2001, CSIS published “To Prevail: An American
Strategy for the Campaign Against Terrorism.” Kurt M. Campbell
and Michele A. Flournoy, the principal authors of “To Prevail,”
suggest the “president should create a task force to explore
the creation of a Homeland Security Service Corps for young and
old Americans alike, who are prepared to give two years to help
serve and protect the nation. Volunteers would be trained to serve
in a variety of fields, including the Public Health Service, Airport
Security, and the National Guard and Reserve.”
 


PCIC 


At
an early-January 2002 news conference the two chairpeople of the
Heritage Foundation’s Homeland Security Task Force, former
Attorney General Edwin Meese and Reagan administration counter-terrorism
Chief L. Paul Bremer unveiled its report, “Defending the American
Homeland.” 

The
Heritage Foundation report recommends, “Local police departments
should include citizens’ assessments of local threats and vulnerabilities
through the Police-Citizen Interaction Committee (PCIC) mechanism—a
formal platform for regular precinct-level meetings with citizens
to discuss problems and solutions of interest to the community.
Implementing community policing tactics, like PCICs, should not
require federal funding.” 

While
it acknowledges the importance of individuals volunteering, the
report is primarily concerned with “unleash[ing] market forces
to mobilize the private sector to promote infrastructure security,”
and the need for building a stronger private sector/government partnership. 

In
an op-ed piece in support of the Task Force’s recommendations,
posted at the foundation’s website in late-January, Meese and
Kim Holmes, director of the foundation’s Homeland Security
Project, argued that in order to defend the nation properly “we
must downgrade functions of government not related to defense—particularly
those that haven’t proven effective.” 

In
keeping with the promotion of Heritage’s mission—privatization,
de-regulation, and smaller government—the Task Force maintains
“many government initiatives, such as the Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA), antitrust legislation, liability concerns, and current
tax policies, inhibit the development of a true partnership for
security between the private sector and the government.” 

Due
to the possibility of chemical and biological attacks, the Heritage
Task Force recommends the creation of “a national surveillance
system…built from the ground up. Local surveillance networks
that collect information on, for example, the number of hospital
admissions, school absences, and state employee absences each day
should provide these data regularly to the states, and the states
should then compile this information and make regular reports to
the federal government.” 

Spotting
“suspicious activity” could easily turn into racial profiling—watching
out for Middle Eastern-looking men visiting a neighborhood—or
reporting someone posting flyers announcing an upcoming demonstration
or anti-war rally. Perhaps reporting on “suspicious” mail
that certain postal customers are receiving. If Attorney General
Ashcroft stands behind what he told Congress—that dissent and
questioning the “war on terrorism” supports the terrorists—then
“suspicious activity” might include whatever your neighbors
believe constitutes opposition to the president’s permanent
war on terrorism. In some towns in America, not hanging out the
flag might be construed as “suspicious” activity.  
  Z 


Bill
Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements/politics.
Research assistance by Laura Ross.