NSA Isn't as Bad as the Stasi, Insist Agency's Defenders

That's not as reassuring as they think



Leave it to the Washington Post, this overgrown company town's paper of record, to put things in perspective.

Along with "how to get rich in the new Washington," the WaPo website announced Nov. 18 that "NSA's got nothing on German Stasi."

"Victims of the fearsome Communist East German secret police say: not so fast" to comparisons of National Security Agency spying with the Cold-War era Stasi, the Post reports.

The spy agency for the communist "German Democratic Republic" employed over a quarter of a million East Germans — nearly 1 in 50 — as agents or informants.

Anyone "who dared criticize their government" — even in private — "could wind up disappearing into its penal system for years."

The Post quotes the director of Berlin's prison museum saying "the Stasi was a lot worse." So we've got that going for us.

Of course the Stasi was orders of magnitude worse than the National Security Agency. How comforting should that be?

We don't need to invoke the Stasi to understand the dangers of the NSA's dragnet data collection. We can look to our own Cold War history, when the political class built files on thousands of peaceful dissenters, swept up millions of Americans' private communications and used the information gathered to amass and maintain power.

Under the NSA's secret SHAMROCK project and its sister program, MINARET, Americans — including congressmen, protesters, and humor columnists — had their telegrams read, international phone calls tapped and secret files about them distributed to the FBI and other agencies the NSA viewed as its "customers."

Liberal icon Jack Kennedy forged new frontiers in domestic surveillance, wiretapping steel executives who'd raised prices and members of the Washington press corps he suspected of accessing classified information.

In "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," journalist Tim Weiner notes, "long before Nixon created his ?plumbers' unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, Kennedy used the agency to spy on Americans."

Political intelligence gathered from wiretaps on lobbyists in 1961 "contributed heavily to the administration's success" in getting the sugar-quota bill it wanted, according to an internal FBI memo.

And there's a reason J. Edgar Hoover was able to run the FBI virtually unchecked for nearly four decades. As Richard Nixon put it: "Hoover's got files on everybody, g—–n it!" Hoover was "a master blackmailer," according to his former top lieutenant, William Sullivan.

In the bad old days, to plug leaks, blackmail congressmen and control dissenters, federal snoops had to gather content and metadata the old-fashioned way, through informants, stakeouts, break-ins and old-school wiretaps.

Today, there's no need for legions of informants. With NSA bulk collection of the data trails we create, we're potentially "snitching" on ourselves.

But let's suppose the NSA's current defenders are right, that there really aren't any hidden abuses, that we've made radical improvements in human nature since the Cold War era, and today's public servants would never be tempted to misuse the treasure trove of information they've accumulated.

Still, if we ever had people we couldn't trust running the government (imagine!) — what use could they make of the surveillance architecture we're building?

As my colleague Jason Kuznicki puts it, isn't it "insane to build the working parts of a repressive police state and leave them lying around?"

At least one of the former Stasi victims interviewed by the Post agrees. Roland Brauckmann, who "was locked away for 15 months in 1982 because he printed fliers for the Protestant church and the anti-nuclear movement" said that "he trusted no government to hold on to the minutiae of his daily life."

After all, "no one knows which kind of people will take power in the future."

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  1. First! Seriously, though, pretty cold comfort that we haven’t caught up to the Communists, yet. They’ve been around longer than the DHS/NSA, after all.

    1. It’s not the Stasi, it’s the Obasi! Totally different.

    2. “Keep a positive outlook. We’re not as bad as Communist Germany, even if we’re worse than Nazi Germany.”

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    3. See i would love to see a comparison of US today vs Britain back in colonial times. I am almost positive our fore fathers rebelled for less.

  2. The bad people have taken power. It’s called the war on drugs. This place is the all-time prison capital of Planet Earth. Must be comforting not being a target of this Leviathan. I wouldn’t know.

  3. Yeah! It’s not like people are being punished for circulating samizdat publishing Wikileaks.

  4. So the defense is that at least we’re not (yet) so bad as East Germany? They are grasping at straws.

    How far does it go, anyway? On abortion, at least we’re not Ceau?escu’s Romania. On freedom of religion, at least we’re not Saudi Arabia.

  5. Well…

    Back in the day, Stasi could tap a total of 40 phones. The NSA is tapping 300 million.


  6. There’s a fundamental difference between libertarians and average voters, and it has something to do with being able to consider the likely consequences in the future of what we’re doing now.

    This helps explain why average voters are shocked to find that ObamaCare is doing exactly what libertarians feared it would do, and it explains why so many other people aren’t especially worried about the NSA.

    When inflation finally rears its head, the average voter will be shocked–shocked! I suppose once some especially vile president starts using the data the NSA is collecting against average voters, they’ll be shocked to find libertarians were right to worry about that, too.

    Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment is nothing to worry about. Obama is in the White House now, and there’s no reason to worry about what will happen once he’s gone, either–because the future is a horoscope and nobody knows what’s going to happen.

    1. That characterization of libertarians fails utterly vis-a-vis immigration, where they seem to have absolutely no clue what the consequences of open borders will be.

      So nah.

    2. Exactly right. Because the average voter believes that any problem with government can be fixed by electing the right people. Libertarians by and large believe that problems with government are systemic, i.e. the nature of government is such that it will be problematic no matter who is at the helm.

      This is why you see non-libertarian public opinion change so dramatically based on the party in power (especially the executive) while libertarians are mostly steadfast on issues no matter who is in office. We’re the public policy equivalent of structural realists.

    3. No no no, you are missing the key difference. See, we are Mericah, umkay? And it can never happen here, because we are Mericah. That kind of thing only happens somewhere else. See, we are the good guy, umkay? We are Mericah!

  7. The generalized, undifferentiated asseveration, “of course, the Stasi was orders of magnitude worse than the National Security Agency” is typical house libertarian blindness to the realities of American totalitarianism.

    1. “libertarian blindness”? Don’t you mean typical public blindness? Didn’t the polls show the public has no problem with NSA (I think the figure was 54%).

      I’m also worried about this stuff filtering into the local PDs. We know some of the NSA stuff went to DEA and others. I used to work for a company doing local government work and they are all starting to install the license plate readers in various spots. No privacy left — going to make the inevitable revolution tougher.

      1. Of course, the public blindness is much worse.

        My point is addressed to what I refer to as “house libertarians”, i.e., those libertarians who harbor American exceptionalism feelings. The term also applies to those libertarians who, more than anything, want to be accepted by the state and its stenographers.

        1. Mike? Those are called Democrats. They’ll fight for you right to fuck anything the moves, doesn’t, or use to. And fuck you on everything else.

      2. NVM, I get what you are saying, that NSA IS as bad as the Stasi and even libertarians don’t realize it.

        Disagree, but if you feel that way, you should be part of a revolution.

  8. There is no need to worry until we start seeing death camps (I mean death camps actually inside U.S. borders and not just those rendition prisons that dot the planet). I think we’re probably still several years away from that. If all these NSA revelations tell us anything, it’s that the government is still in the infrastructure-building phase of becoming a totalitarian state. We’re safe, but probably not our kids or grand kids. Fortunately they will be much better able to deal with stuff like this than us. They can just add this to their TO-DO list along with paying down the federal debt and financing Social Security and Medicaid. If they can handle issues like that, rolling back the police state ought to be a cinch.

    1. If they had some big successes to show us, they’d be shouting about them from the rooftops.

      I have to think, at this point, the NSA has its own spending and employment inertia like any government program.

      Apparently they have some 30-40,000 employees at the NSA, now. I’ve heard a lot of them are ex-Air Force.

      I wish they were all sitting aroudnd doing nothing. Sometimes it’s better when government employees are truly useless.

      1. I bet some good programmers could build amazing games on those NSA supercomputers.

      2. They tried tooting their horns but it backfired. First it was 54 plots taken down due to snooping, then it became 12 or zero.

        Inertia is our only defense at this point since courts and the liberal/libertarian-Republican alliance has not done a thing (yet) to outlaw this.

        Maybe the next Snowden will unleash a virus inside NSA, but I doubt it.

    2. Dave, It won’t be anything that obvious. It will be abuse of the existing legals system to target individuals, fabricate evidence and cases and lock you up in the general population. That way it has the patina of following the law. The part that will be missed is that the charges started with a political investigation and the charges were found to meet the requirements.

      1. That is how it ALWAYS is. Look at the court transcripts from the old USSR, or modern day China. The State never comes right out and says “FYTW”, they always cloak their actions in a patina of legitimate laws enforcement. Always.
        And the hoped-for end result is always the same: “A boot stamping on a human face, forever.”

    3. There is no need to worry until we start seeing death camps

      By then it will be too late. It’s better to nip the totalitarian state in the bud now then wait until the wreckers and kulaks are on the trains.

      1. obviously….he was being sarcastic….he just forget sic at the end

  9. Well, we currently have 800,000 or so people who have top secret clearance, and as others have said, our surveillance infrastructure is something the east Germans could only have dreamed of.

    If this map is at all accurate, its physical distribution is pretty all encompassing as well.


    1. That’s frightening.

      On top of that, how many people have access to Thomson-Reuters or Lexis-Nexis databases with all of your “private” information? I’ve seen these reports: they have credit scores, residential addresses, SSNs, phone numbers, email addresses, every family member, every entity you’ve ever done business with, every court case you’ve been named in, etc.

      There is no such thing as private information anymore. Well, unless your rich (and/or savvy) enough to cover your (and your family’s) tracks in a web of entangled business entities (in which case you might as well just walk yourself to prison as that screams “money laundering” to the feds).

  10. Okay, look, Public Relations 101 for Spy Agencies should start with “NEVER EVER COMPARE YOURSELF TO THE FOLLOWING: 1) the Nazi SS; 2) the KGB; 3) the Stasi. Yet another reason to completely dismantle that agency: overbearing, intrusive AND incompetent. (BTW, did anyone there even take a pay cut for completely missing the preparation for 9/11?)

  11. The Marian Reforms were to the Fall of the Roman Republic as the NSA WILL be to the fall of the American republic.

    Meaning that the Marian reforms created the professional roman legions without which Julius Ceasar could not have seized power. Just like the NSA will be indispensable to our future “great leader”.

  12. “NSA Isn’t as Bad as the Stasi, Insist Agency’s Defenders”

    Isn’t that kind of like saying that poliomyelitis isn’t as bad as bubonic plague?

  13. “But let’s suppose the NSA’s current defenders are right…”

    Let’s not. Actually, I agree with Healy’s point that even if you trust the current spooks, you can’t be sure spooks in the future won’t be corrupt. I just think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the current NSA – and the other alphabet agencies – might not be rogue lawless entities.

    The Nation and CounterPunch printed credible allegations this year that the infamous Cointelpro operations have re-emerged – for example, against Occupy Wall Street supporters. We haven’t yet had an Edward Snowden-type whistle-blower expose what’s going on at the FBI (which is exempt from the Whistle-blower Protection Act).

    The concerns are not just on the left either ? a Forbes magazine writer this year called for another Church Committee investigation.

    Most disturbing is the proliferation of private intelligence-security firms (Stratfor, Blackwater, etc.) to whom the feds and corporations can outsource their dirty work with plausible deniability.

    An archive of articles on the most serious abuses (such as the slander and disinformation programs uncovered by Anonymous hackers) is posted at a site called Fight Gang Stalking.

    The late Ted Gunderson, who had been a high-level FBI official, publicly maintained that a modern version of Cointelpro exists which is much more sophisticated than the original version. Americans should not assume that if we have Stasi-type activities occurring, the feds are going to advertise it.

    1. good god…..the amount of stuff i have been ignorant to is fucking amazing. I became enlightened about 2-3 years ago and the crap i have learned in that time is scary. I am in my 20s and i feel like i am behind the power curve but sadly i am not. Thank god for the internet and people like you guys that spread the word! I promise to never be ignorant….cointelpro has been bookmarked…i must be in the thousands range of stuff that shows the government is waked and i have only been collecting stuff for less than a year -_-

  14. A convoluted way of expressing disgust over NSA’s violation of our Constitution Under a president that seems to want more information. A very disturbing thought!

  15. I’m sure the Stasi wasn’t as bad the Stasi, until it was.

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  17. Why should we object to the accumulation of personal data? Surely these people have our best interests at heart!
    I’ll tell you why…….
    In 1910, the great anti-semitic countries of Europe were Russia and France. Germany was actually quite tolerant. The Dreyfuss Affair was fresh in memory. There were anti-semitic riots in Lyons and Marseille over false accusations of “Blood Rites” and fantasies of white slavery. The Russians tolerated the usual Pogroms in the Ukraine. The Frankfurter Zeitung and other German papers published livid editorials about uncivilized and ignorant intolerance of Jews and minorities.
    That year, also, the Germans held their census. One of the questions on the form was: “Are you (check one) Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Other?” Citizens of Europe’s premier constitutional monarchy and liberal welfare state, with a Reichstag full of Socialists and a fairly free press, had no reason not to check “Jewish” if that applied to them. This was the land of Beethoven and Goethe, after all….
    The Nazi’s found these census records immensely useful. Thirty-two years later those respondents got to watch their grandchildren step into the gas chambers ahead of them…..

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