San Jose Mercury News, Sunday December 9, 2001

Uncle Sam Playing Big Brother:  Using Green Cared As Reward For Informers Casts Uneasy Light On American Values 


Forget about your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. America is in the market for a few good weasels, specifically those from Middle East or Islamic nations, people who are willing to inform on their suspicious-looking compatriots in exchange for green cards and citizenship. 

 Special rewards will go to the wretched refuse of your teeming shore if they can provide incriminating evidence about terrorism.  

Attorney General John Ashcroft is putting pressure on new immigrants who fit the casual friend-of-terror profile to be “responsible cooperators,” to snitch on their brethren.. Name a purported supporter of Al-Qaida and it’s “Open, sesame” to the American way of life. 

 Or is it?  

Those who come forth with damning information would not be the first to rat on their acquaintances for personal gain. Coercing duplicity among thieves is an ancient tool of law enforcement and a mainstay of spy craft.  

Indeed, Ethel Rosenberg’s kid brother confessed on camera this week that he bargained his way out of espionage charges by lying under oath to help convict his sister and brother-in-law for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They died in the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1953, while the equally guilty brother walked away scott-free.  

The policy of exhorting new immigrants to spill the beans on terrorism might not be such a problem if it weren’t for the generally creepy atmosphere since Pres. George Bush first exhorted all citizens to be the “eyes and ears” of the government’s anti-terror effort. Three months into the campaign – and after a dramatic enhancement of police powers and the threat of secret military tribunals for the accused -- the real potential for eroding civil liberties is starting to sink in.  

A defiant Ashcroft faced off with Congressional critics Thursday, defending his tactics as justifiable and constitutional.  

Among his most controversial moves, Some civil libertarians say Ashcroft’s latest call to snitch for liberty is particularly ominous because it encourages behavior that would appear to be antithetical to basic American mores.  It begs the question of what kind of values the United States is instilling in its newest prospective citizens.  

The snitch is a character loathed in our popular culture. He conjures up the kind of darkly paranoid societies that were on the losing side of the Cold War -- the failed authoritarian systems where lies were for sale and corrupt political advantage was awarded to those who betrayed friends, neighbors, even parents.  

And yet, almost everyone agrees these are frightening times that require new ideas and better tools to fight the genuine scourge of terrorism. And it’s important to note that there is a big difference between whistle-blowing and snitching. A whistleblower can sometimes be the office snitch or a nuisance with an ax to grind. Whistle-blowers put themselves at personal risk to reveal significant wrongdoing in an. Ideally, these disclosures strengthen the integrity of that institution. Likewise, there is a legitimate role for anonymous informants in law enforcement, and it is reasonable to assume that at least some of the non-citizen detainees have provided federal agents with valuable information about bone fide criminal activity. 

What kind of nation will we become if an ethos of snitchery replaces Emma Lazarus’s hoary sonnet about immigrants yearning to breath free, which was engraved on the Statue of Liberty in an era of rugged American confidence. An Orwellian land of sycophants and double-crossers, where no one can be trusted?  Remember Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution,  and Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt? Secret whispers have ruined the lives of countless innocent people. 

“It’s going to impact the whole fabric of society,” says Muhammad Faiz Rehman, an official with the American Muslim Council, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, about the “S-visa” program. “There will be so much suspicion in the community. We know there are people who will frame you just to advance their own interests.”  

The attorney general also favors the dismantling of Justice Department guidelines restricting the FBI’s ability to spy on domestic religious and political organizations, limits that were imposed in response to the excesses of the J. Edgar Hoover era. Rehman’s group would be a potential target for surveillance, along with other groups that are not linked by evidence to aiding or abetting terror networks.  

The American  Muslim Council is worried about the so-called “dragnet” investigation of some 5,000 recent alien visitors identified by the Justice Department as fitting the ethnic and religious profile of a likely informant. The effort to recruit local law enforcement agencies to interview these reluctant witnesses has blown up in the agency’s face, however, with Bay Area’s  police departments joining others across the nation refusing to cooperate with federal agents. The exception? Fremont, home to the nation’s largest Afghan population.  

A sampling of the agency’s “suggested questions” speaks for the broad innuendo apparently sought by the investigation:  

 “Is the person aware of anyone who reacted in a surprising way to the September 11 attacks?” 

 “Is the person aware of anyone who has sympathy for the September 11 hijackers or other terrorists.” 

 “Is the person aware of any suspicious activity in the neighborhood, community or circle of acquaintances that might suggest the undertaking or support for terrorist activities?” 

The little-known “S Visa” program has been on the books since Congress enacted the 1994 Violent Crime and Control Act. But it hadn’t been taken advantage of until last year, when the number of cases quadrupled from the previous fiscal period. As many as 106 newcomers gained permanent residency status in the United States for themselves and their 122 family members under this temporary crime-stopper immigration policy in the year leading up to September 11. Congress made the program permanent soon after tragedy struck, capping the number of S visas at 250.  

Not every one is spooked about program’s portent for civil liberties, or disturbed by the fact that more than 600 aliens are currently in INS custody, caught in a legal limbo.  

“In all these cases they are illegal aliens. It doesn’t matte that they were picked up because of a terrorism investigation,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. Krikorian expresses the visceral feelings of a significant segment of the American public when he brushes off the “alarmist” views of Muslim-Americans and civil liberties advocates. “If these people are terrorists, they’re not here to undermine our civil liberties. They want to murder my children.” 

But the question has to be asked whether a culture of snitching should be the model for post-Osama bin Laden America.  

In the name of protecting the cherished values of our free and open society, the Bush Administration has already ensnared itself in a paradoxical challenge to those values with hard-nose tactics in the domestic war on terrorism. The irony has not been lost on watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.  

The ACLU warns that the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress in an apparent fit of Anthrax Panic in October, minimizes judicial supervision over wiretaps and Internet surveillance, expands the government’s ability to conduct secret searches, grants the FBI broad access to sensitive personal data held by businesses, and reduces the legal rights of undocumented residents. 

“I don’t think this investigation of the 5,000 aliens is going to be a contained phenomenon,” says Jayshri Srikantiah, a staff lawyer with the ACLU of Northern California in San Francisco. “This is just the beginning. They can widen the web,, and we don’t have the public oversight that is fundamental to our judicial process.”  

To someone who has worked as a journalist in authoritarian societies, these developments are a nagging concern. While on assignment in pre-democracy South Korea, my phone was tapped and my back was watched. In Shanghai, during the Tiananmen Square uprising, I was befriended by a young and beguiling undercover cop, who did his best to steer me away from dissidents. That sort of paranoia is part of the job overseas, but I don’t like the idea of coming home to it.  

The problem with snitching, as the American Muslim Council’s Rehman points out, is that it weaken the bonds of trust that hold relationships and communities together. This is not to justify the dubious virtue of  omerta – the Sicilian code of silence that kept organized crime groups intact and impenetrable for so long. Passing along untainted information about crimes of violence and terror to the authorities is not at all a threat to civil rights.   

But it’s another matter entirely to encourage someone to snoop on neighbors and pass along conjectures about their pinions, their beliefs, the people they associate with—or most importantly, their inner thoughts and intentions.  

I’ve been trying to get this basic point across to my eight-year-old daughter, that she doesn’t need to run over and tattle on her little sister every time she spills her apple juice or sneaks a piece of forbidden candy. “Tell me when she does something seriously bad,” I admonish her. “Nobody likes a snitch.”  

 When my younger sister receives a mysterious letter in Arabic from Osamu bin Laden, postmarked Tora Bora, Afghanistan, I personally will pick up the phone and call John Ashcroft. 


Karl Schoenberger is the Mercury News’s Pacific Rim Correspondent. He is the author of “Levi’s Children: Coming to Terms with Human Rights in the Global Marketplace”