• U.S.

Eyes And Ears Of The Nation

6 minute read
Amanda Ripley/Little Rock

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.

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.

Highway Watch, which will receive an additional $22 million next year, preserves the part of TIPS concerned with monitoring behavior in public space. The Department of Homeland Security has also launched Port Watch, River Watch and Transit Watch. Then there are the familiar Neighborhood Watch groups, many of which have expanded their missions to include homeland security. In New York City, government outsourcing of surveillance has even trickled down to doormen and building superintendents, thousands of whom are being trained to watch out for strange trucks parked near buildings and tenants who move in without furniture.

After the session in Little Rock, two newly initiated Highway Watch members sat down for the catered barbecue lunch. The truckers, who haul hazardous material across 48 states, explained how easy it is to spot “Islamics” on the road: just look for their turbans. Quite a few of them are truck drivers, says William Westfall of Van Buren, Ark. “I’ll be honest. They know they’re not welcome at truck stops. There’s still a lot of animosity toward Islamics.” Eddie Dean of Fort Smith, Ark., also has little doubt about his ability to identify Muslims: “You can tell where they’re from. You can hear their accents. They’re not real clean people.”

That kind of prejudice is hard to undo, but it’s a shame Beatty’s slide show did not mention that in the U.S., it’s almost always Sikhs who wear turbans, not Muslims. Last year a Sikh truck driver who was wearing a turban was shot twice while standing near his tractor trailer in Phoenix, Ariz. He survived the attack, which police are investigating as a hate crime.

The Highway Watch website boasts that the program is open to “an elite core [sic] of truck drivers” who must have clean driving and employment records. In fact, their records are not vetted by the American Trucking Associations. At the Little Rock event, some came in off the street without preregistering. However, the organization is highly security conscious about other parts of its operations. It refuses to disclose the exact location of its hotline call center or the number of operators working there. “It could be infiltrated,” says Dawn Apple, Highway Watch’s director of training and recruitment.

What’s clear is that Highway Watch is a morale booster for drivers. “I don’t want to sound too hokey, but truck drivers are a very patriotic bunch,” says Mike Russell, a spokesman for the organization. “It made sense for us to take advantage of what we do every day–which is, basically, patrol major highways through a windshield.”

Just three days after his training in Little Rock, veteran Wal-Mart truck driver Danny Ewell found cause to call Highway Watch. On Father’s Day, as he was leaving a Red Lobster in Johnson City, Tenn., he saw a young man walking between two cars with an orange T shirt draped over his arm. Peeking out from under the T shirt was a semiautomatic weapon. “Because of the training, I knew to look at his height and his hair color, and I got the make and plates of his car,” Ewell says. “Normally I would have just looked at his clothes. But now I know to look for things that won’t change.” Ewell called 911 and Highway Watch. Local police responded but were unable to find the man. Ewell, at least, had done his part.

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