What Germany can tell us about the growing US surveillance state

A lot has been made in recent weeks of the comparison between the US’s global spying apparatus and the Ministry of State Security (“Stasi” for short) in the German Democratic Republic.

In its time, the Stasi was notorious for being the world’s most ruthlessly efficient intelligence agency; however, in the US, “Stasi” is often used as a vague stand-in for “not-freedom”, so that Americans who haven’t seen The Lives of Others (and some who have) have only the faintest idea what made the ministry so deserving of its reputation. Although comparisons between US and GDR surveillance vary in their merits, they’re almost all instructive as we take stock of how far our civil liberties have been eroded, and where we might be headed if we don’t change course.

Most notably, US whistleblowers like former NSA analyst Thomas Drake and “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg (widely considered the most important whistleblower in US history) have invoked the Stasi in their defenses of Edward Snowden. In a Guardian op-ed, Drake explains that in his time as a German-Russian crypto-linguist in the Cold War, he became an “expert on East Germany, which was then the ultimate surveillance state…they had a huge paper-based system that held information on virtually everyone in the country – a population of about 16-17 million.”

The Stasi collected information on East Germans (as well as foreign nationals) by monitoring communications – tapping phones, bugging residences, intercepting mail, and so on – but also through a network of civilian informants known as “unofficial collaborators” or IM. IM, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, could be citizens who faced punishment for a real or alleged infraction, or they could simply be using their access to government targets in order to enrich themselves. This apparatus had a chilling effect on political dissidence.

Back then, domestic law prohibited US secret services from conducting this kind of mass surveillance on Americans. Today, as Ellsberg points out, “[t]he NSA, FBI and CIA have, with the new digital technology, surveillance powers over our own citizens that the Stasi…could scarcely have dreamed of.” Interestingly, this sentiment is echoed by ex-Stasi official Gotthold Schramm, who recently said that, “Compared to NSA surveillance today, what we did was like a children’s game.”

Bearing in mind the possibly self-serving nature of Schramm’s claim, he, Ellsberg, and Drake bring up a crucial point. It makes no sense to see the post-9/11 national security state as an intermediate stage on the road to some horror we’ve already seen. Advances in technology, and US global dominance, have made surveillance far more “total” (and far more covert) than was ever possible in so-called totalitarian states.

That’s why the strict opposition – as articulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others – between Stasi practices and those of “democratic states” is so off-base. In a Washington Post editorial this past week, Charles Lane defends Merkel’s comments (and Obama’s spying) by falling back on the same tired binary:

In East Germany, the purpose of surveillance was to protect an unelected party that exercised a monopoly of political and economic power on behalf of a foreign military occupier, the Soviet Union. The Communist Party’s ideology politicized every aspect of life, rendering the pettiest deviations, in word or deed, threatening – and thus subject to secret official scrutiny. Unchecked by any law, Stasi spying evolved into an end in itself. East Germany really was a “surveillance state.”

As Scott Horton notes in his commentary for Harper’s, however, the GDR actually had an “elaborate network of laws that empowered surveillance and eroded the rights of citizens specified in the country’s constitution.” Like US intelligence, the Stasi operated within a formal legal system that lent an appearance of legitimacy to the state’s violations of its laws and constitution.

What really separates the US and the GDR, for Lane, is that the US government’s stated intention to protect its citizens from harm is fundamentally noble and sincere, while the East German government’s stated intention to do the same was fundamentally cynical and authoritarian. 

The Stasi’s credo was “to know everything”; the US surveillance state’s motto, according to NSA Director Keith Alexander, is “collect it all”. The Stasi used hundreds of thousands of IM to keep its population in fear and stamp out political opposition; the Obama administration’s Insider Threat program forces government employees to monitor their colleagues’ behavior and report potential leakers – or face criminal charges themselves.

As I’ve written previously, whistleblowing may be the most vital form of dissent in the US today. Nothing confirms Obama’s attitude towards dissent more clearly than his unprecedented persecution of those who inform the public of government misdeeds. And it’s precisely total surveillance that enables the government to nip truth-telling in the bud.

That Germans are, on the whole, more sensitive than Americans to this reality of mass surveillance is clear from the reaction to recent spying revelations, including a report in der Spiegel that the NSA collects data on 500 million communications per month in Germany. The Merkel administration initially pled ignorance, a dubious claim that lost all credibility when Snowden, in a subsequent Spiegel interview, explained that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) cooperates extensively with the NSA to collect bulk data on its citizens. Even conservative politicians like Markus Ferber, a member of Merkel’s ruling center-right coalition, decried “Stasi methods, American-style”.

While the German government, like the US’s other lackeys in Western Europe, will continue to cow-tow to Washington, commentaries like Jakob Augstein’s in der Spiegel are more indicative of German (and global) attitudes towards mass surveillance: “Those who thought that we are on the good side and that it is others who are stomping all over human rights are now opening their eyes,” he writes. “A regime is ruling in the United States today that acts in totalitarian ways when it comes to its claim to total control.” Der Spiegel doesn’t have a direct US equivalent, but it’s something like a cross between Time and the New York Times. A brief glance at the Times‘s editorial page shows just how differently pundits in the US and Germany view these revelations.

While conservatives in the leadership of both US parties have united, no less in their defense of mass spying than in their witch-hunt for Snowden (and even Glenn Greenwald), NSA and BND surveillance is shaping up to be a wedge issue in Germany’s federal elections in September.

Chancellor Merkel’s main challenger, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück, has called for Germany to grant Snowden’s asylum request after the Merkel administration rejected it. Opposition parties are ready to attack Merkel’s coalition on the grounds that dragnet electronic surveillance violates Article 10 of the Grundgesetz (the German Constitution), which protects the privacy of mail and telecommunications.

Of course, one has to take with a grain of salt the indignation of the Social Democrats and Greens, who were in power as recently as 2009 and 2005, respectively (The Left Party has yet to be part of a ruling coalition at the federal level). It’s more useful to see this debate as an index of broad public dissatisfaction with the “terrorist” bogeyman trotted out to excuse the worldwide elimination of privacy.

And while much attention has been focused on German memories of Stasi repression, it’s worth noting that the former West German (now just “German”) government has been collaborating with US intelligence to violate civil liberties and human rights since the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 2012, historian Josef Foschepoth revealed for the first time that secret Cold War agreements gave US intelligence the authority to gather communications data through the BND and the Verfassungsschutz (the FRG’s domestic intelligence agency) that those agencies were themselves constitutionally forbidden to collect. This authority was given a legal basis in 1968, when the administration of Social Democrat Willy Brandt signed a law lifting the constitutional requirement that the targets of surveillance be informed that they’re being monitored.

Why is it so important to oppose the US’s global network of spying, killing, and imprisonment? Because Colin Powell sold bad German intelligence to the UN as proof of Iraq’s nuclear weapons, and with it, sealed the fate of 1.5 million Iraqis. Because when the US government says it’s preventing “terrorism”, it doesn’t always mean what you think it means. Because even “democratic” states have used warrantless, unaccountable surveillance to silence movements for change. They use it now to keep Muslims in fear of the government and the rest of the public in fear of Muslims. Why would they stop now?

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2 thoughts on “What Germany can tell us about the growing US surveillance state

  1. Pingback: No post this week | The Red Fury

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