Plans for New York firefighters to share anti-terrorism information with Homeland Security officials have drawn criticism from Islamic Americans and even some firefighters who fear the program may violate constitutional protections.
New York City firefighters rest after responding to an emergency in July.
The Fire Department of New York has a vested interest in spotting terrorists. The city is a potential target six years after the September 11 attacks that killed 343 of its firefighters at the World Trade Center.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are establishing protocols for sharing threat information with first responders, and for handling information from firefighters. And they want to train firefighters to look for indications of terrorist activity.
Firefighters and fire inspectors are uniquely positioned to identify terrorists because, unlike police, they can enter homes and businesses without search warrants, officials say.
"They get to go into places where police don't get to go into," said Jack Tomarchio, the DHS's deputy assistant secretary for intelligence.
DHS and FDNY officials began discussing the idea a year ago, Tomarchio said. Once the program is perfected in New York, it can be extended to fire departments everywhere.
"I think it's very important throughout the country," said New York City Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. "There has to be a heightened awareness in the United States, given the events of 9/11, and given the statements that have been made by terrorist groups."
A similar proposal to have the nation's letter carriers serve as the eyes and ears of Homeland Security fell under a torrent of protests from letter carriers, but opposition to this proposal has come chiefly from civil libertarians.
Critics contend the program erodes the legal distinctions between police officers, who must obtain search warrants before entering a dwelling, and firefighters, who can enter without warrants.
"What it effectively does is turn firefighters into moving surveillance devices for the police," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. Firefighters "don't have to get a warrant because they're not technically there for a law enforcement purpose," he said.
Turley accused the Bush administration of "using firefighters to get around the Fourth Amendment and the need for a warrant. That's a serious problem in a society that values privacy." . . .
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said firefighters should report on anything they encounter that's clearly illegal.
"But you don't want firefighters as spies, so to speak, who are using almost warrantless searches to enter homes and to look for things that they're not really supposed to be looking for," said Hooper. "You have to be able to trust firefighters, that they're not coming there to do you harm, to spy on you. They're coming there to save you. And this policy could break down that link."
Books, pictures, language and dress could also raise suspicions "with someone who had a particular prejudice or bias," Hooper said. "This would break down the trust between ordinary citizens and firefighters." (MORE)