Feb. 21, 2006 – You expect the bus driver who picks your kids up for school each morning to keep a close eye on them. But he or she could in fact be keeping a closer eye on you and your neighbors â€“ just to make sure you arenâ€™t the type who would slip a bomb into a "Dora the Explorer" backpack and sneak it onboard.
This past summer, three school-bus-industry associations, in partnership with the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and with funding from the Homeland Security Department, began training drivers across the country to spot potential terrorists while shepherding young ones to school. Recent news reports note that bus drivers in communities across the country recently finished the training program and are now back on the road and on the watch for out-of-place activities and individuals.
Officially known as School Bus Watch, the effort is part of the broader Highway Watch initiative established in 2003 with grant funding from Homeland Security. The program is designed to broaden the governmentâ€™s counter-terrorist activities through the help of vigilant citizens.
According to the Associated Press, School Bus Watch leaders hope to train about 600,000 drivers across the country. Like Highway Watch, training for the school bus program is free and participants are not provided with extra compensation for their added workload.
Though there have been no public reports of Highway Watch participants successfully stopping any suspected terrorists, the program issues regular "requests for assistance" asking truckers to look for possible suspects. Itâ€™s most recent request was a January call for truckers to "assist in identifying a person of interest" in the southeastern United States.
Reportedly, the person sought had videotaped trucks and asked questions about tanker-truck delivery schedules. The alert asked participating drivers to call a hotline and report any such activity, though it offered no physical descriptors or other identifying information.
School Bus Watch and Highway Watch come in a long line of federal programs that recruit people to spy on one another in the name of fighting terrorism. Doormen, private security guards, garbage men, mail carriers and others who regularly travel the same routes, and are often in contact with strangers, have all been enlisted in such surveillance schemes.
In a 2004 report, the American Civil Liberties Union outlined five such civilian-based programs, including Real Estate Watch, a Cincinnati program that trains real-estate agents to watch for terrorists; and the Community Anti-terrorism Training Institute, or CAT Eyes, which is modeled after neighborhood-watch programs and block clubs. Additionally, states and local governments across the country have set up "citizen reporting programs," the ACLU report noted.
The ACLU says many of these programs, including Highway Watch, grew out of the officially defunct Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS), a 2002 initiative to recruit millions of Americans to act as government informants to report "unusual or suspicious activity." Congress eventually shut down the controversial program, amid public concerns that it would drastically expand the governmentâ€™s surveillance power.
"The governmentâ€™s constant exhortations to micro-vigilance," wrote the ACLU in the report, "if taken to heart, will create an atmosphere of conformism and mistrust that encourages abuses, divides Americans from one another and casts a chill over the traditionally freewheeling nature of American life."