News - Is it holier to snitch than to receive?

Now the feds are strong-arming charities in the war on terror

Following the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration launched its still ongoing drive to enlist all manner of folk to aid the government's effort to gather as much evidence on as many people as possible by starting "TIPs" — the Terrorist Information Program.

Americans, leery of having cable installers and water meter readers peering into our homes for "suspicious" signs and then calling like junior G-men to a government 800 number, quickly put the cabash on TIPs. Sort of.

Government brainiacs at the usually somnambulant Office of Personnel Management have now come up with a new wrinkle on TIPs. They've enlisted some 1,620 charities to help in their unquenchable thirst for information.

How, you might ask, was Uncle Sam able to get such a huge number of nonprofits — ranging from the sublime (the Salvation Army) to the absurd (Dress for Success Worldwide) — to do its bidding in identifying possible terrorists? Simple. Follow the dollars.

Every year, millions of federal employees receive solicitations from the Combined Federal Campaign to donate to charitable organizations through paycheck deductions. The campaign currently lists 1,620 charitable organizations as eligible to have federal employees check off their name on the form; the selected organizations then receive whatever dollar amount the employee designates to be withheld from his or her paycheck.

We're not talking about peanuts. Last year, those 1,620 nonprofits split a quarter of a billion dollars in federal employee donations.

So how does fighting terrorism enter the decision-making process that accompanies federal employee efforts to support the nonprofits of their choice? Seems a new rule (never enough of those government rules) requires any charity to sign a form pledging that it will not hire any terrorists if that organization wishes to participate in the campaign.

But it doesn't end there. The charity also must certify that it has reviewed various so-called terrorist "watch lists" (which are compiled and maintained by the government), has compared those lists against its entire list of employees, and has certified that none of its current or future employees were on those lists.

It appears that few campaign nonprofits really study the lists and compare them to their own employee roles. In the first place, such an exercise could take a great deal of an organization's employee time. A group in Boston reportedly assigned two employees to the task; it took them three full days to cross-reference the lists. Most of the organizations likely just signed off on the forms, collected their winnings and gave it nary a second thought.

But a few conscientious organizations are now raising some significant questions about this latest government anti-terrorism move. For one thing, government "watch lists" of whatever sort — including terrorist-related lists — are notoriously inaccurate. Studies have shown that error rates of 20 percent or 25 percent are not uncommon on large government or commercial lists.

Yet, simply because they choose to seek donations from federal government employees, nonprofits are now being forced to sign agreements pledging to fire employees or not hire them if those workers' names appear on a list compiled by bureaucrats somewhere in the bowels of a federal agency. A list that often is unverified, frequently highly speculative and rarely proved.

Just ask Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was stopped five times last spring from boarding commercial airliners because his name appeared erroneously on a government "no fly" anti-terrorist watch list. Or U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who happens to share the same name as someone on a watch list. Guess if the senator applied for a job with the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (No. 2530 on the campaign list), he'd be turned down.

Or, talk with David Nelson, brother of the late Ricky Nelson, of "Ozzie and Harriet" TV show fame. He's reportedly had trouble flying ever since 9/11 because someone erroneously put the name "David Nelson" on a watch list. The unfortunate Mr. Nelson has since discovered the truth of the maxim that, once you get on a government list, you never get off of it.

Some groups, including the ACLU, are balking at this ham-handed effort by the feds. For one thing, ACLU lawyers and other legal experts note that if a charity fires or refuses to hire someone based on that person's name appearing on some government list, and his or her inclusion turns out to be erroneous, the charity opens itself to possible lawsuits. Some groups have a problem with firing someone based not on conviction of a crime — or not even based on any formal charges — but simply because some nameless government officials think or guess that he or she might be connected with criminal elements.

The nonprofits must also certify to the feds that not one dollar of all the money they raise, from whatever source, goes to any organization on a government terrorist watch list. Such lists, like those involving individual terrorist suspects, are lengthy (containing thousands of names), speculative, ever changing and inaccurate.

The Internal Revenue Service also is getting in on the act — oh, joy! — requiring nonprofits that engage in international charitable work to prove that none of their funds are used to fund terrorist activities anywhere in the world.

If such tactics continue to force private organizations to do the government's work, fewer nonprofit organizations will participate in the Combined Federal Campaign, fewer federal employee dollars will be donated to charities, and fewer needy individuals will be served. Perhaps, that will make the bureaucrats happy.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Smyrna, writes a column for CL every other week.

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