Eyes And Ears Of The Nation

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STEVE JONES FOR TIME

I SPY: “From trucks to taxis, school buses to NASCAR.” That’s the exuberant motto of a program to train drivers like Larry Lawson, of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority, to identify terrorists

On a blazing hot morning last week, 75 men and women of the highway — bus drivers, truckers and van operators — convened at a nondescript office building in Little Rock, Ark., to be trained as terrorist hunters. The Department of Homeland Security this year gave $19.3 million to the American Trucking Associations, which is based in Alexandria, Va., to recruit a volunteer "army" called Highway Watch. So far, 10,000 truckers have signed on to become amateur sleuths. Over the next year, the goal is to add tollbooth workers, rest-stop employees and construction crews, creating a corps of 400,000 people drawn from every state.

Waiting for the training to begin, Jo Anna Cartwright, who manages the rural public bus system in northern Arkansas, said she had not yet encountered any terrorists in her job, as far as she knew. "We got a terroristic phone call the other day," she said, "but it turned out it was just the boyfriend of an employee." Her bus drivers pay special attention to a gentleman from Afghanistan who recently married a regular rider, she said. Cartwright had come to the training to learn what else she could do.


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The tutorial was led by Jeffrey Beatty, a security consultant, formerly of the FBI and CIA. He started by showing clips of alQaeda training videos. "They are out there training for operations in the U.S. homeland. Make no mistake about it," he said, warning that Little Rock cannot afford to be complacent. "You're getting a presidential library here — for a President who launched cruise missiles against al-Qaeda," Beatty said, referring to Bill Clinton. There are not enough police and federal agents to protect all of America, but transportation workers could be a "force multiplier," he said. "We want to turn the hunters into the hunted," he intoned for the first of four times that day.

So how exactly does one spot a terrorist on the highway? Members of Highway Watch are given a secret toll-free number to report any suspicious behavior — people taking pictures of bridges, for example, or passengers handling heavy backpacks with unusual care. "We want to hear from you when something just doesn't look right," Beatty said. "Say you're out at a truck stop and you see someone hanging out near your truck, wearing a jacket. Maybe it's too hot out for a jacket. Go back inside, alert someone and check him out through the window."

But — and this is important — Highway Watch members are just messengers, not superheroes, Beatty said. The hotline call center in Kentucky logs the information it receives in a database and contacts law enforcement when necessary. It usually isn't. Of the 200 or so calls that come in each month, only about 10 have anything to do with suspected terrorism. Most callers report abandoned vehicles, stranded motorists or roadway hazards. Highway Watch members are instructed to look for certain kinds of behavior — not certain kinds of people. "Profiling is bad. Bad, bad, bad," Beatty said.

Still, listening to his ominous warnings and the bravado that comes easily to the former Delta Force commander, one has no difficulty imagining an empowered civilian getting carried away. And Americans generally have not reacted well to institutionalized nosiness. In 2002 the Justice Department proposed something called Operation TIPS, which would have encouraged not just truckers but also cable installers and mail carriers, among others, to report suspicious behavior. But before the program could begin, it was buried in opposition from the left and the right. Americans did not want to become a "nation of snitches," as the libertarian Cato Institute put it.

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