WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, backing away from a controversial anti-terrorism plan in the face of a public backlash, said Friday that it will no longer solicit terrorism tips from utility workers, postal employees and anyone else with access to people's homes.
That pledge scales back President Bush's recently unveiled plan to set up a nationwide network of domestic tipsters from within the U.S. work force who the administration believes are in a "unique position" to report suspicious activity.
The administration still plans to enlist potentially hundreds of thousands of workers this fall as part of Operation TIPS. But officials have decided that workers with access to homes and private property will not be authorized to use the special nonpublished tipster hotline, Justice Department officials said.
The notion of cable television workers or meter readers reporting what they considered to be "suspicious" activity in someone's house had riled senators and civil libertarians alike, sparking protests and congressional opposition.
"People were obviously uncomfortable with that, and we were sensitive to that and wanted to listen to the public's concerns," said a Justice Department official who asked not to be identified.
The move heartened civil rights advocates, who say they don't want the government encouraging people to snoop on their neighbors. The Operation TIPS program has become a rallying point for critics who maintain that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has gone too far in scaling back civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism.
"They're backpedaling, and I'm glad they're backpedaling," said Laura W. Murphy, head of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview. "It's quite a relief ... knowing that even the Ashcroft administration is not immune to public criticism."
But Murphy questioned whether limiting the program means "the true demise of government-sanctioned peeping Toms or is just a public relations effort to stem the criticism." Congressional critics, meanwhile, predicted the changes will not be enough to derail legislation proposed last month that seeks a ban on the program.
David Carle, spokesman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said concerns go beyond the issue of access to homes. Another central question is what will happen to records of the tips once they are referred to law enforcement agencies for review.
"The bipartisan concerns in Congress about this program are not likely to be satisfied by this change. There are many questions still without answers, including how the data will be used and stored by government agencies and other concerns about the structure and scope of the program," Carle said. "Justice Department officials have offered scant information that makes it unclear whether even they know how the program would actually work."
Leahy and other senators pressed Ashcroft at a congressional hearing last month to explain how the program would work if, for instance, a telephone or cable worker spotted something "suspicious" during a call at someone's house.
Ashcroft gave a fairly noncommittal response. While he indicated that the information would not be stored in a databank, as originally suggested, he refused to exclude the use of such tips in the administration's new program. "Telephone repairmen have the opportunity, just like you have an opportunity, to call the FBI at any time," Ashcroft responded.
In the two weeks since that hearing, however, opposition to the plan has grown, prompting Justice Department officials to ban tips regarding private homes altogether.
"The department never intended that workers calling the hotline would report on anything other than publicly observable activities," according to an updated plan released by the Justice Department on Friday.
"However, given the concerns raised ... about safeguarding against all possibilities of invasion of individual privacy, the Department of Justice has decided that the hotline number will not be shared with any workers, including postal and utility workers, whose work puts them in contact with homes and private property."
The Postal Service indicated last month that it did not want to participate in the program because of civil rights concerns. The Justice Department is now in discussions with officials from the shipping, trucking, maritime, and other transportation and service industries to enlist their support in getting workers to call in tips once the program begins, officials said.
The administration said initially on a Web site promoting the program that it expected a million or more workers to participate, but officials said Friday that figure was not meant to be taken literally.
Even as plans changed, the administration continued to insist that the use of utility and postal employees "made sense" because they have been identified as targets of terrorism, as in the case of last year's anthrax attacks.
Some law enforcement officials have questioned whether the tip system would overwhelm agencies with referrals for what could prove to be mostly bogus leads.
But a Justice Department official involved in the program, who asked not to be identified, said authorities are convinced, based on the hundreds of thousands of terrorism-related tips received since Sept. 11, that the program "will be useful."
Officials also denied a report that tips to the Justice Department were being referred to the TV show "America's Most Wanted." The report was based on a misunderstanding between a receptionist and a reporter, officials said.