Remember Operation TIPS, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's plan to recruit citizens to spy on their neighbors? Well, it's back.

Electronic signs on the Maryland side of the Beltway are broadcasting the message pictured above.

Maybe it's only me, but I believe that using these signs for this purpose is unwarranted. So I called the Maryland State Highway Administration to ask who had authorized the TIPS messages on the Beltway. I was told to contact the Maryland State Police.

When I called the police, I was connected to Cpl. Rob Moroney, who said, "Nobody has to authorize that." He explained that Maryland owns the signs and that police had asked the highway administration to display the message during times of heightened alert. Because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared a Code Orange alert on March 3 with no end in sight, the TIPS messages would seem to be posted for the long term.

I contacted Fritz Mulhauser, staff attorney for the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, to find out about the legality of these messages. He suggested that I try to determine the legislative history of the state authorization for the signs.

That quest led me to Mike Zezeski, director of the Maryland Coordinated Highways Action Response Team (CHART), a division of the highway administration. According to its Web site, CHART's mission is "to improve 'real-time' operations of Maryland's highway system through teamwork and technology." I asked Zezeski how TIPS messages were helping to achieve this mission. He had me imagine what would happen if terrorists blew up a bridge along the Beltway. He also said that he didn't know how effective the TIPS messages were but that he had heard they were getting some results.

The State Police confirmed that. "So far it's been a good program," Moroney said. "We have received calls. We take any call seriously and follow up on all of them."

Zezeski also said that "everyone" wants to use the signs, including the American Red Cross, which requested that the highway administration flash a plea for emergency blood donations in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The Red Cross was turned down. However, when the State Police asked for an "Amber Alert" to inform motorists to be on the lookout for an allegedly kidnapped child, the highway administration put up that message.

If Maryland Beltway motorists really need to be on the lookout for bridge-bombing terrorists, then the highway administration should install temporary signs with more carefully targeted messages between every exit and not just use the electronic boards, which are located only near potentially congested areas, in keeping with their mandated purpose of easing traffic flow.

With its dreary sound barriers and nerve-racking stop-and-go traffic, the Beltway is already miserable. Do we have to make it worse by allowing Big Brother to flash anxiety-provoking TIPS messages that we don't really need?

-- Nathan Edelson