When Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002 proposed enlisting private citizens to hunt for terrorists through a program called Operation TIPS, he was hearkening back to a long American tradition of private citizens working with the government as citizen spies.
During World War I some 250,000 volunteers joined the units that made up the American Protective League (APL). This private organization, which had nearly 100,000 members in 600 cities by 1917, worked with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation to identify war saboteurs and alien spies.
Wearing badges that looked official, the volunteers soon expanded their mission. They conducted surveillance, and harassed, intimidated and “arrested” people whose loyalty was questioned, perhaps because they refused to buy Liberty Bonds. The APL staged raids on factories, union halls, and private homes, and detained more than 40,000 people, including draft dodgers, for the War Department. According to Howard Zinn, “The League claimed to have found 3 million cases of disloyalty” (Twentieth Century: a People’s History).
Newspapers were also active in encouraging activities that foreshadowed Operation TIPS. Zinn writes that the Literary Digest asked readers “to clip and send to us any editorial utterances they encounter which seem to them seditious or treasonable,” while the New York Times in 1917 declared in an editorial that “it is the duty of every good citizen to communicate to proper authorities any evidence of sedition that comes to his notice.”
In 1919 the APL was disbanded. But many of its units remained active under names like the Patriotic America League and the Loyalty League, and helped round up dissenters during the Palmer Raids.