WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday a program that would ask millions of Americans to report suspicious activity will not create an Orwellian government database that could be used against innocent Americans.
"We don't want a new database, I've recommended that there be no database and I've been assured there won't be one" created by the program, Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Operation TIPS -- Terrorism Information and Prevention System -- is being developed by the Justice Department and is set to get under way this summer.
It is a part of the Citizen Corps, an initiative announced by President Bush in his State of the Union address, and is designed to enable the public to participate directly in homeland security.
Operation TIPS plans to give millions of American truckers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others "a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity," according to its government Web site.
Those people are crucial because "they are regularly in the public," Ashcroft said. "They can spot anomalies -- things that are different -- such as truck drivers seeing things happen that don't usually happen."
Some lawmakers have echoed the American Civil Liberties Union's criticism that the program could result in Americans spying on one another.
"We don't want to see a 1984, Orwellian-type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We want to make sure that what this involves is legitimate reports of real concerns that might involve some terrorist activities."
A government database of terrorist tips, whether truthful or not, could be used against people, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
He outlined a scenario where a person applies for a government loan or a job and is told that a suspicious activity has been logged in the databank because somebody "didn't like their dog barking in the middle of the night" or the political shirt they were wearing.
Ashcroft assured senators that Operation TIPS would only be a clearinghouse, with all relevant information passed on to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, which already have well-established policies on how information can be used.
"TIPS will be a referral agency that sends information that is phoned in to appropriate federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft also defended his proposal to immediately destroy government records of people who buy guns, disputing a congressional report that said his idea could help criminals get firearms illegally.
Other "records that are maintained can be used to detect the illegal purchases," said the attorney general, responding to a General Accounting Office report released earlier in the week.
Ashcroft last year suggested shortening from 90 days to no more than one business day the time during which the government keeps records on people who try to purchase firearms.
But the GAO, Congress's watchdog agency, said one-day destruction of records would mean that the FBI, which does background checks on people who buy guns, would not be able to go back and check its work to look for fraudulent transactions or mistaken approvals.
Only seven out of 235 illegal gun sales between July 2001 and January 2002 were noticed after one day, the GAO report said.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check system electronically checks law enforcement records while gun buyers are waiting to make purchases. Felons, drug users and people subject to domestic violence restraining orders are among those prohibited from buying guns.
But some databases checked by the FBI have missing or incomplete records. If new information shows up within three months that proves the gun purchase should have been denied, the FBI calls local police and has the weapon confiscated.
The FBI would not be able to do that if the gun purchase records are immediately destroyed, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., told Ashcroft.
Ashcroft said the system still would have the firearm dealer information and government agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could still track down illegal gun purchases through those records.
The Justice Department has been given grants to help local agencies update and correct their databases so more criminals are immediately rejected when they try to purchase guns, officials said. The department requested $63 million for the program this year, officials said.
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