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Former East German Stasi Officer Expresses Admiration For, Dismay At US Government's Surveillance Capabilities

from the NSA's-to-do-list:-'impress-Stasi'...-check! dept

While Germany's security agencies seem to be impressed with the size of our surveillance coverage, the German people are understandably a bit more perturbed. The divided Germany of the not-too-distant past saw many people on the eastern side of the Wall spend a great deal of time being surveilled by their countrymen, and recent developments echo that past all too well.

A former Stasi member, Wolfgang Schmidt, was recently interviewed by the McClatchy news service. Unsurprisingly, there's a hint of envy in his discussion of the US government's surveillance infrastructure.

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.
As was pointed out late last year, the US government has more data on the average American citizen than the East German Stasi, a division created solely to surveil German citizens. This was noted before the recent leaks, meaning what's been gathered by the NSA, FBI, etc. is exponentially greater than previously estimated.

The Stasi's surveillance was much more targeted than our current efforts, though this was mainly due to technical limitations, rather than out of any concern for German citizens.
In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

“So much information, on so many people,” he said.
Today, there are no such limitations. Everything can be gathered, stored and sorted through at these agencies' convenience. How much has been collected still remains a mystery. FOIA requests sent to the NSA attempting to discover what's included have been denied, with the agency predictably stating that confirming, denying or releasing any information would do "exceedingly grave damage to national security."

Former East Germans, however, have been granted access to their personal Stasi files. Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy advisor, obtained his recently. Over 15 years, the Stasi put together 9,000 pages on his activities. Stefan Wolfe, who curates the East German Museum, also had a look at his file and found it to be mostly comprised of routine, everyday life.
“When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew,” he said. “A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.
The author of this McClatchy piece refers to the Stasi's obsessive detailing of day-to-day activities as the "banality of evil." When an agency makes an effort to track everything about someone, actions or words that normally mean nothing are attributed significance by those performing the surveillance. "It has to mean something, otherwise we wouldn't be tracking it." But grabbing everything means ending up with a whole lot of nothing, as Wolfe points out.
“The lesson,” he added, “is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”
Even the former Stasi agent, despite his begrudging admiration, finds the US surveillance efforts troubling.
Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
You can't justify harvesting this much data if you're not going to use it. And if you can't find anything worth using it for, you'll connect the all-important "dots" until it resembles something... anything. Anything that departs even minimally from the norm becomes suspicious. Using encryption? Probably a threat. Parking too far away from a hotel? Potential terrorist. Find the local water a little tough to drink? Let's get that file started. Unwittingly engage an undercover FBI agent in conversation? Chances are you'll soon be converted into a terrorist.

The US, after years of acting as the world's policeman, has finally revealed itself to instead be the unmarked van that's constantly parked just down the world's street. (And the unexplained "clicking noise" on every US citizens' phone call...) It has the sympathy of several of the world's governments, many of which are directly benefitting from the US's surveillance infrastructure or hoping to construct one of their own. But the citizens of the world are more wary, especially those that who've already been subjected to intrusive, non-stop surveillance by their own governments.

Filed Under: east germany, nsa surveillance, stasi, surveillance, us

Reader Comments

The First Word

I Want My Country Back

I was born in the mid sixties. As a teenager I grew up with pride in my country knowing that we were free from the oppressions of communism and governmental overreach. The Soviets were the enemy in a cold war. Today I wonder what country I live in. My country seems to view it’s own citizens as the enemy now. I no longer recognize America for what it once was. Here are some stark contrasts to the “red threat” when I was young and how our country is behaving today.

It was the Soviet’s that secretly spied on it’s own people and criminalized those that the government didn’t like. Not whistleblowers on the NSA.

It was the communists that would gather information on telephone calls and communications on it’s own citizens without a warrant and without probable cause. Not the NSA spying on it’s own citizens.

It was Pravda the Russian state run newspaper that suppressed accurate reporting and was used as a propaganda tool. Not a Fox News reporter being accused by the US government of espionage for doing his job.

It was the wealthy, privileged and powerful in the Kremlin who forced their politics onto the people. Not the IRS targeting political groups who have views that differ from the current regime.

Cover ups only happened in places like Chernobyl. Not at American consulates in Benghazi

Twisting of the press and the denial of the Holodomor famine only happened in Communist controlled Russia. Not with the US Department of Justice’s massive data gathering of AP reporters phone records, and having their emails monitored.

Secret puppet courts only existed in communist countries. Not in the US where over 160 witnesses are expected to testify against Bradley Manning in a secret military court.

It was only Soviet leaders that could murder it’s own citizens without probable cause and without due process. Not the United States using drones against its own citizens.

It was only in Soviet Russia that there was no constitution which allowed the government to wield absolute power. Not the so called Patriot Act that subverts due process, probable cause and can force indefinite detainment by just an accusation of treason or terrorism.

It was the KGB that could “stop and frisk” any citizen at any time without probable cause. Not the NY police department.

It was the communists that had armed troops in the streets and performed military style house to house searches. Not in Boston Massachusetts.

It would only be communists that would claim that people complaining about their situation are terrorists. Not the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation accusing their citizens of being terrorists when they complained about their water quality.

Only in Soviet Russia no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling police roamed the streets and the citizens watched as their comrades were torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes. Not in Bakersfield California where nine officers and one police dog were “needed” to subdue an allegedly drunk man who died after being beaten repeatedly by the police. Then the witnesses to this event had their cameras and cell phones confiscated as “evidence” and these were returned to them with the videos being deleted.

It was the Politburo that created vague laws making simple common actions criminal. Not the CFAA that makes it a federal crime to “access a computer without authorization or in a way that exceeds authorization” thus making it possible for prosecutors to jail a person who violates a website’s terms of service.

It was in Soviet Russia where a person was guilty and had to prove their innocence. Not America where there are so many unknown and ridiculous laws that possessing a lobster of a certain size is a federal crime.

In Soviet Russia you feared everything because any action could be twisted as against the law if government didn’t like you. Not in America where ignorance of the law is impossible to avoid because lawmakers themselves are not really sure how many criminal laws there are.

It was the KGB did not require any recording of the testimony of the witnesses they were interviewing. Not in America where the FBI’s no recording policy allows for the statements of those they interview to be falsified, editorialized or reinterpreted.

In Soviet Russia everything was owned by the state. Not in America where when the IRS was audited for inappropriate expenses they then claimed they could not find the receipts.

In the Kremlin was where everything was kept secret and there was no transparency. Not in America where the current administration claimed to be the most transparent administration in History and has in fact become the exact opposite.

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  1. identicon
    Don Wheelspi, 28 Jun 2013 @ 8:10am

    Re: I Want My Country Back

    The idea in the 1960s the Soviets were bad and the USA angelic is nonsense.

    COINTELPRO was run by the FBI through 4 administrations with the express goal to bug, disrupt and destroy the reputations of many legit individuals and organizations, including Martin Luther King.

    The irony of the current controversy is the government probably wants it NOT to be secret. The sort of record keeping Snowden revealed would only stop the stupidest of bad guys; but every KNOWING about it makes people more likely to self-censor and stay in line.

    Here's a hint: the news of the hour is almost always irrelevant and misdirection.

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