Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, July 19, 2002


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I can't believe the Bush administration doesn't realize it's making enemies Right and Left by proposing such Orwellian nightmares as "Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System)."

Announced this week as a pilot project that will start in August, the program plans to recruit 11 million volunteers in ten cities whose jobs give them a unique opportunity to investigate other Americans and "report suspicious, ostensibly terrorism-related activity."

Honestly, who thought up this piece of junk? Oh excuse me, Mr. President, Mr. Attorney General, Mr. Homeland Security, I didn't see you standing there.

Of course Attorney General John Ashcroft says the project will not cause Americans to spy on each other, that it's just "a way for workers whose jobs bring them in contact with neighborhoods, highways and businesses — such as letter carriers — to report suspicious activities," according to the Associated Press.

Letter carriers? Holy cow: Neither rain nor sleet nor an attack of conscience ... but wait: It turns out the U.S. Postal Service, after meeting with Bush administration homeland security officials, has said it's not interested in participating in Operation TIPS.

But before you breathe more easily, think of this: The Postal Service already *has* procedures for postal employees to report suspicious activity, and it already *has* a central place for the reporting of such suspicions, the Postal Inspection Service. One hopes these are appropriate responses to this post-9/11 era, not a way to peek at that letter from your Aunt Helen to see if her recipe for apricot cobbler isn't explosive.

Who are the others chosen by Ashcroft to participate in Operation TIPS? Well, the most likely candidates are truck drivers, ship captains, bus drivers and utility meter readers, says the Department of Justice.

Other than the obvious danger that some people judge "suspicious activity" differently than others (we don't even know what the guidelines are), the problem is that no safeguards exist to stop the DOJ or the new Department of Homeland Security from recruiting whomever it wants to extend this kind of citizen-based surveillance.

The next step, and we would never know it, could be utility *workers* and cable *installers* who are also "well-positioned to recognize unusual events" right inside your home and can, you know, jot down the names of the books and magazines you read, the art on the walls, the mail you've received and of course those plans you've got lying around for blowing up the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges.

It's great to see that Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, who's supposed to be leading the way for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, wants to ban both Operation TIPS and the Bush-favored concept of national identity cards.

But the Bush administration has so many of these "in the name of national security" cards up its sleeve that you know some of them are going to sneak through. The USA PATRIOT Act with its gags on booksellers and librarians did get through, after all, and is now law.

At least we can name the problem and support groups like the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom and the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has joined the conservative Rutherford Institute in opposing Operation TIPS as one of the dumbest ideas to come out of the White House in decades.

Or on the other hand, can we name the problem? Several readers have written to tell me that FBI agents arrive at libraries with legitimate subpoenas; they do not "barge" into libraries and "ransack" the records as I have stated.

Well, sometimes I go overboard, but not this time. "Barging" and "ransacking" are exactly what the FBI does. Just because the acts are official doesn't mean we should cover up the result, which is the destruction of Constitutionally protected freedoms right in front of our faces.

And say, you know those meetings we used to hear about in China and the Soviet Union where people get up and confess bad deeds they've committed against the State? Well, the "First TIPSter" has already arrived:

In a letter to the San Francisco Examiner, Gary Huygen of Petaluma, California, makes this historic admission: "Always willing to rat out anyone I suspect is not a 'good American' by my definition ... I nominate as the first disloyal American needed to be locked up as: MYSELF.

"Damn right I will complain about every civil liberty Ashcroft wants to abridge; every environmental cesspool Bush wants to approve, and especially every financial meltdown Cheney works for.

"That was easy. Now to go after my neighbors, minorities, aliens, Democrats..."

Gee, Gary, don't forget booksellers and librarians. Read on.



Here's a (literal) sign of the times, I'm afraid:

The other day I was startled to see a sign on the door of a local bookstore, Bird & Becket of Glen Park in San Francisco.

Taped under a newspaper clipping headlined "FBI Checking Out Americans' Reading Habits" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/23 - see HU #330-331), the sign suggests that customers do three things immediately (as paraphrased):

  1. Write a letter to Congress;
  2. Write a Letter to the Editor;
  3. Pay for books with check or cash so there won't be a computer record of what you buy.

It's that third one that sent shivers up me timbers.

Like the American Library Association's alert to librarians to dump records before the FBI can get hold of them (see columns #330 and #331), warnings like this from independent booksellers are a great idea.

If it's true that FBI agents are demanding records of customer purchases in bookstores and user records in libraries - and they are - maybe we should stop using credit cards *and* writing checks for books from now on, just to be sure records about the books we buy won't get scooped up in some future FBI sweep.

At the same time, the implications of warnings like this are terrifying. Bookstores and libraries offer a sacred place for free speech and freedom of inquiry. Continuing threats that FBI agents may suddenly arrive at the door to demand records are surely causing a chill in the way people select the books they want to borrow or buy.

This loss of choice in reading material runs so counter to the role of libraries and bookstores, so opposite to the goal of informed citizenry, that it's no wonder the USA PATRIOT Act has anticipated public outcry by giving FBI agents the search-warrant ammunition they want to blast their way through Constitutional protections.

So while it's comforting to see signs like this on a local bookseller's door, it's frightening, too. Just when you think the clamps can't get any tighter on intellectual freedom in America, something unbelievably stupid like Operation TIPS comes along (see above). Who knows what's next?



All right, all you readers in Northern California, get ready for that great explosion of literary energy that comes along once a year for one day only - that's tomorrow, July 20th - Books By the Bay.

Here's our chance to visit more than 40 independent booksellers who somehow rarely duplicate each other in the titles (and great bargains) they offer. Each of 'em gets the space of a large closet, yet when you step up to their display and meet the booksellers they've sent, you feel the store's character emerge all around the happy crowds. And the range of books is so spectacular it could send John Ashcroft running for subpoenas (tiny joke).

More than 60 authors will be there to speak and autograph like mad. There will be a whole stage for children's activities, book raffles, music, panel discussions, great food (even a Krispy Kreme Kiosk or two!) terrific picnic conditions everywhere.

It's free, it's all day (10-4), it's probably going to get terrific weather and it's located at the gorgeous Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco (4th & Mission) where easy parking abounds. For more information, see http://www.booksbythebay.com.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

In recent years, those of us who love good books or write them have mourned the passing of many wonderful stores and presses--most recently, as noted in your column, Capra and Black Sparrow.

All the more reason to celebrate the young, brash independents that, defying all odds, carry on the spirit of those that have set the standard. 

Two come to mind: Reader's Oasis Bookstore in Tucson, Arizona, and MacAdam/Cage Publishing of San Francisco. The former came on the scene in the wake of three bookstore closings, and, by forging close ties with the community, including media outlets and local authors, flourishes. MacAdam/Cage entered the arena in 1998, acquired the backlist of MacMurray and Beck, and today brings out more than a dozen titles per season, each expertly and aggressively marketed.

While respecting the legacy that has nurtured the best of our literary tradition, independents like these have learned to survive alongside the mega-entities through savvy marketing. Thanks to them, we can look ahead with more than a modicum of optimism.

Germaine W. Shames
author, "Between Two Deserts" (MacAdam/Cage 2002)

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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