Citizen informants

On Sept. 11, hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Attorney General John Ashcroft urged Americans to give the FBI “any information they know about these crimes.” Ashcroft later ordered the Justice Department to follow up on every one of those tips.

Hundreds of thousands of neighborhood gumshoes heard the call and proceeded to do their part for homeland security. By Sept. 14, the FBI’s toll-free tip line (1-866-483-5137) was receiving well over a thousand calls per day. By the end of September, the FBI’s hastily adapted Web site (www.IFCCFBI.gov, previously used to report Internet fraud) had received 865,000 visits — catapulting the once-obscure site onto the roster of that month’s 50 most-visited Web sites, according to Internet analyst Jupiter Media Matrix.

Many of the anonymous tipsters tattled on anti-administration dissenters (like the Durham, N.C., college student whose dorm-room poster of George W. Bush holding a noose — in protest of his support for capital punishment — prompted a visit from the FBI, the Christian Science Monitor reported). Most of the citizenry’s suspicions, however, were directed at people of Middle Eastern origin, noted another Monitor report.

Four months later, in mid-January, the Monitor reported that 99 percent of the citizen tips were turning out to be worthless, according to law-enforcement authorities. By that time, however, the damage had been done. More than 1,100 Middle Eastern men were being detained in prison — not by the FBI, whose interrogations turned up almost no links between any of the men and terrorism, but by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is still holding most of them (and preparing to deport some) on minor immigration-law violations.

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