From today's Washington Times.
We've all seen this phrase in block letters: "REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY," followed by a 1-800 number. But if a House Democrat manages to kill a tipster-immunity measure under consideration in Congress this month, people who report suspicious behavior could be sued in civil court if the accused are not charged with a crime. November's frightened U.S. Airways "John Doe" passengers in Minneapolis are already in the crosshairs.
The lawmaker in question is Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He thinks that granting tipsters immunity amounts to racial and religious profiling. Yes, that's the Democrats' "homeland security" pointman in the House speaking.
For two months, Mr. Thompson has deployed the profiling argument against this measure, tucked into the House transportation-security bill. The good news is that a bipartisan House majority already passed it 304-121 seven weeks ago. But sadly, Mr. Thompson is expected to strip it from the bill. He is expected to be the lead House negotiator in the coming weeks when the bill reaches conference committee, and if he is, he will have considerable sway over the final product.
Mr. Thompson would stand alone among key homeland-security players, all of whom support immunity, if he blocks it. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Senate committee and ranking Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, both support it. So does Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, the ranking member in the House homeland-security committee.
How damaging it would be to leave tipsters on the hook; there could be few better ways to staunch the flow of information. Think of last week's Fort Dix tipster and ask yourself whether you would report suspicious behavior in a similar position.
The cutting edge of this debate, the case of the anonymous U.S. Airways passengers in Minneapolis, is not encouraging. These passengers observed six imams refuse to sit in their assigned seats, request metal-bearing seatbelt extensions and speak loud condemnations of the United States. After frightened passengers reported this behavior, the imams were removed from the flight. Troublemakers are routinely removed for less. But the "John Does" were sued along with the airline and regulatory authorities.
Listening to Mr. Thompson's March 27 floor remarks, it's clear that he thinks an absence of legal charges against the accused means that the tipsters can be penalized in court. This shifts the precarious balance between liberty and security much too far in one direction.
Think about this Catch-22 for a moment. The government encourages ordinary citizens to pass on potential terrorism information, as it should. But those citizens can now be sued if no charges are filed. One can literally be sued for reporting provocative behavior on an airline. We're clearly a long way from September 11. What a disgrace.