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July 21, 2002

WATCHING THE WATCHERS: Brad Templeton is taking David Brin seriously in his response to the TIPS program. This is a must-follow link.

I haven't weighed in on this one, because I'm still not clear on what TIPS will actually be like. It sounds to me like the crimewatch program my town has, in which bus drivers, etc., are supposed to watch for crime and report it. As near as I can tell, that program involved putting some stickers on buses and making drivers sit through a videotape informing them that when guys in ski masks run out of a liquor store, there's probably a robbery in progress. The program then disappeared except for the stickers and -- no doubt -- some bureaucrat allegedly tasked with "overseeing" it.

I don't think it will be much use against terrorism. Our current domestic-security apparatus has shown itself utterly unable to cut through the data fog -- it can't even process tips from freakin' FBI agents! who think they've spotted a terrorist, as the Moussaoui case demonstrated. It can't possibly handle the vast quantity of low quality data produced by a million active participants, and there's no indication that anyone is addressing that issue, making the whole thing basically an exercise in PR.

My first inclination is that TIPS is disturbing as much because it indicates that the bureaucracy is still out of touch with reality and pursuing make-work pseudo solutions as because of any threat to civil liberties.

The solution to the terrorism issue is to cut off the snake's head -- which I think is in Saudi Arabia, not America. Everything else is just windowdressing and bureaucratic empire-building.

I warned about this on September 11. To some degree, of course, such empire-building is inevitable. But the danger of bureaucracy-as-usual is greater here than in past wars. That's because the absence of an obvious battle front means that (1) bureaucrats are less constrained; but (2) public support is harder to maintain. That means that the folks at the top will have to keep the bureaucracy on a short leash, or political support for the war will evaporate, and Bush will be a one-termer.

The last war in which bureaucratic imperatives took precedence over winning the war was Vietnam. That doesn't seem to be happening in the military struggle, but it seems to be well on the way to taking place on the home front.

This would be a campaign issue for the Democrats -- except that, as Joe Biden's dumb RAVE Act demonstrates -- they're no better at standing up to bureaucratic attacks on civil liberties than the Republicans.

UPDATE: Don't miss this chillingly realistic example of the TIPS system in action.