Cold War Kids: surveillance in Germany

Article 17 of the ICCPR, ratified by the United States in 1992. It emitted no reservations on this specific part of the Covenant.

A lesson in the abuse of information technology: when Edward Snowden started revealing the extent of NSA’s spying into not only US citizens private conversations, but also those of foreign individuals, government and entities, outrage fell over the world the way dominos fall all over each other, in a cascade, a cacophony of screams and gasps that were only as loud as the ignominy of the revelations themselves. Not everyone was equal in the face of seemingly impotent rage: Brazil was more vocal than a suspiciously quiet Sweden, and France tried hard to balance a diplomatic act that Germany – and more precisely, its press – thoroughly ignored. It’s become impossible to bypass the German rage, to simply take Angela Merkel’s reaction – or lack thereof – to face value. While the UK has remained more or less silent on GCHQ’s collusion, and Spain is trying to mend the broken pieces of its own intelligence shortcomings, Germany is boiling, culminating this week into an all-encompassing call to provide Edward Snowden with the political asylum he was once denied.

There are many reasons why Germany is seeing red, and one of them lies within our own lifetimes. If you are in the early thirties, you remember a time when Europe was divided by an iron curtain put in place by a paranoid and vindictive soviet empire. This paranoia was in part justified and in part an integral component to the regime it created in the DDR. It was 24 years ago, and for two whole generations, the system of surveillance implemented against Germans, both East and West, was intrusive, invasive, violating, violent, isolating, and extremely pervasive in its everyday implications: no one was immune, no trust could be built as part of the social contract, and everyone was preemptively considered a criminal. It permeated German society until nowhere and no one was safe. It created an unstable and flailing national psychology that the fall of the Wall could only begin to stabilize. And a short generation later, Germany wakes up, betrayed again, once again shackled to the whimsy of another nation’s interest, another pawn in the foreign relations chessboard on which national sovereignty is only to be invoked in the name of the war on terror. Once again, Germany loses its grasp on itself.

“the persistance of ignorance”, painting on remaining parts of the Wall, Ostbahnhof, Berlin, 2013

Surveillance is a double edged sword: as articulated by pro-intelligence pundits, it is a necessary evil in the battle against plots, schemes and plans to attack, disrupt, maim and kill. It is a little, sometimes insignificant price to pay to maintain safety – or more accurately, the illusion of safety. In the wet eyes of Gen Keith Alexander laid the crocodile tear of allegedly thwarted attacks against the state, of the “thousand of lives saved” by indiscriminate data collection, and of course, as always and forever, 9/11, the spectre haunting us all and justifying every single means to every possible end.

In a 1961 press conference, Charles de Gaulle addresses the shortcomings of the Soviet Empire during the Berlin Crisis. His words are strangely resonating today as we are witnessing the very same failures and mistakes being repeated by the other empire, the one that supposedly survived, yet carried on horrific methods of population control in order to achieve external security.

… there is something so arbitrary and so artificial that one is led to attribute it either to the premeditated unleashing of frantic ambitions, or to the desire of drawing attention away from great difficulties; this second hypothesis seems all the more plausible to me since, despite the coercions, isolation and acts of force in which the Communist system encloses the countries which are under its yoke… actually its gasps, its shortages, its internal failures, and above that its character of inhuman oppression, are felt more and more by the elite and the masses, whom it is more and more difficult to deceive and to subjugate.

But it is that historical narrative that touches on a sore spot for Germany. A spokeswoman on the preservation of Stasi archives spoke to the Washington Post and said, “But it is precisely because of the Stasi’s hunger for information and its abuse of East Germany’s citizens that we are today so sensitive about modern day surveillance. It is not just about a wiretapped phone — it is a reminder of the fragility of free societies.” Our free societies now bear the scarlet letter of internal failures and oppression – and we must resist being deceived and subjected to its whim.Surveillance is not a random, once-occurring, warranted happenstance. It is a long term operation that should always be justified by clearly defined notions of national security and always subjected to judicial approval. That the NSA scandal appeared to be of extraordinary circumstances – circumventing the rule of law, possibly going even beyond powers granted to the executive was only one part of the outrage it sparked. It’s the widespread and systematic nature of it, the assumption of pre emptive guilt, the notion that each and every single individual might all of sudden, one morning, become a threat to national security, internal or external, and their intimacy, professional relations and personal beliefs be subject to scrutiny are of a pervasive nature that creates a society in which paranoia seeps from every pore. Under the terrifying rule of the Stasi, Germany lived not just in fear of the state, but in fear of each other. In a society which welcomes collaboration with the state, that provides incentives for the media to sit still and write narrative-abiding copy, dissent and debate are not welcome, rejected, to the point of creating a parallel universe in which everything is staged, faked, creating an illusion of liberty that no one buys, instead knowing their safety could be turned around on them any minute should they say the wrong word, see the wrong movie or read the wrong book.NSA surveillance is the resurgence of a disturbing ghosts of tyrannical regimes past. It is a leftover we thought we had gotten rid of when the Cold War came to an end, when the tension of living in a perpetual conflict eased a little. It was just a generation ago, and Germany is still picking up the broken pieces. It it still reconciling, mending, gluing, sticking to a model it took a year to create after the 1989 uprising. Issues of distrust, hard-shell individualism and denunciation are internalized to be sustainable, and they never leave the psyches of people who have suffered through tapped phones, overheard conversations, and opened correspondence. If the NSA merely “just” cast an incredibly wide net of data collection, their insistence on considering Germany a power source of potential or substantive enemies, those methods that may be brand new and updated in their technology but archaic and obsolete in their methodology are reminiscent of the Zersetzung, this practice of systematic surveillance and psychological warfare enabled by the East Germany secret police, the Staatssicherheit – the state security. Even the name is similar. For four decades, up to its official dissolution in October 1990, when Germany was reunited as one single state entity, the Stasi instilled, created, and installed fear in the minds of the citizens living under its all-encompassing eye.

Painting of people storming the Wall, Ostbahnhof, Berlin

The concept of Zersetzung and its array of surveillance method has been widely documented once police forces gained access to the Stasi files. In complete collaboration with the KGB, Darius Rejali explains, “during the Cold War, the KGB had approximatively 420,000 employees, but its grip ‘relied heavily on an extensive network of collaborators, who spied on colleagues and neighbors’. The Stasi employed more than 175,000 informers and 1 in every 97 citizen was an informer.” In 1990, a special committee was created to handle the Stasi files, called the  Office of the Federal Commissioner Preserving the Records of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR, specifically set up to not only go through the files, but allow the newly created German state to prosecute former Stasi members. The extent of the spying and of its victims was so extensive that a debate raged on whether or not those files should be made public. The question of public interest was raised, as it often is, against a question of national security: would this lead to vigilante justice against former Stasi members? Would it favor a further distrust among reunited families and circle of friends? Would the good being performed through the release of surveillance files outweigh the negative – and endless, through national imagination – consequences of knowing it all from those who sought to know it all?
Public interest won. Over 2 million German and European citizens, between 1991 and 2011, gained access to their own files. It gave them the opportunity to gaze into a past surely not forgotten and assimilate the knowledge that their intimacy was shared with the state, that their security laid in the hands of hundreds of thousands of informants, that they could be considered enemies at any point and snatched from their homes at any moment. Procedures of disinformation and disappearances were also common, and it wasn’t until very recently that the Stasi files were still revealing all their secrets. Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ghost of the Stasi lays heavy over Germany, as methods of invasion, psychological reeducation, misinformation, and miseducation are now rampant among those victims of the NSA spying. Because of the nature of intelligence, this space of friction between the state interest and public interest could still be raised. In Germany, however, it is of a different nature: the new state born out of the reunification in 1990 is walking on the desolate path littered with the burning ashes of a past too distant to be constantly recalled, but not far enough to be properly and objectively addressed. The NSA has done nothing short of what the Stasi had intended to do with its own Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung, its international operations meant to extend the powers of the soviet empire beyond the limits of the Iron Curtain and covertly assist military operations abroad. The Stasi was feared because it was invisible; anyone and everyone could be an informant; and operations were easily denied and dismantled, so the victim was left with a feeling of devastating powerlessness and the Orwellian image of psychic isolation that can only led to craziness and/or fury. We see nothing different today as every revelation brought forward by Edward Snowden adds one crumbling block after another in the distraught puzzle that is NSA covert operations.

Still from the 2006 movie “The Life Of Others”, about surveillance in East Germany.

The former Stasi headquarters now host a museum. It compiles its methods of surveillance, arrest, and detention, in a system that has since then become emblematic of what constitutes a police state. It also became a memorial to those who have lost their life, identity, or internal compass due to a system that meant to reform expression and opinion, to “redirect” and “reeducate” dissenters, that controlled media, that disappeared whistleblowers, and that killed those who tried to leave. The Stasi’s work, which took its members from the newly rebuilt streets of the city of Dresden to the mountains of South Yemen, has now been part of the collective unconscious as the immodest extreme of communism, of the torture inflicted to citizens that were merely prisoners, and of the “shield and sword” of a Bloc that was meant to crumble under the wave of democracy and individual freedoms that the West was supposed to guarantee. January 15, 1990 – when the Stasi headquarters were raided by East Germans – should stay transfixed into our collective memory as to the dangers of granting too much power and little (if any) accountability to intelligence agencies, themselves having an inherent tendency to function in a closed circuit, away from the political discourse in Congress and the voxpops of popular media. The NSA is not a sword, but it is meant to be a shield, and it is hardly ever questioned the way it should be questioned. Senator Feinstein is fumbling to articulate a policy that would be sound to a constituency legitimately worried as to the future of their privacy and their likelihood to remain free; James Clapper and Gen Keith Alexander are floating the flags of counter terrorism in order to hide and disguise the gross violations of civil rights made in the name of a security we can never achieve; and if France and Spain are struggling to find where they fit in the mass diplomatic puzzle, Germany has, by itself, in 1990, decided that mass surveillance was a tool of torture and control that did not belong to a democratic regime.
The Berlin Wall fell 24 years ago today. German citizens took their own freedom back from the state that protected its interests as opposed to those of its citizens. German citizens now seek independence from United States intelligence, shall they become, again, so soon, mere pawns on the national security chessboard. This is not security. This is abuse.
NSA files must be released, and it is in the public interest to access them.
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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. terrorist. probably jetlagged.

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