Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Is the NSA America's Stasi?

A protester "defaced" the U. S. Embassy in Berlin last night with a debate provoking message. 

The protester/artist/rabblerouser Kit Dotcom used a projector to put an image of his face on the side of the building under the words "United Stasi of America." 

Invoking the word "Stasi" brings almost as sharp of a response from Germans as "Nazi."  Some may mistakenly assume that the East German secret police force was simply a continuation of the Gestapo under a new regime.  Far from it.

The Gestapo was the political police unit within the Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA in short.  It had a relatively small number of thugs compared to the later Communist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  The Gestapo's reach remained limited due to this shortage (likely brought on by the needs of the war more than Nazi scruples) although those in its grasp felt the full measure of cruel tortures.

The Stasi, on the other hand, built an enormous agency of counterintelligence and surveillance.  Likely no East German family escaped the reach of the Stasi. Those who did not inform were often informed upon.  East Germany preached that good citizens turned in their suspicious neighbors for any number of offenses.  Each report warranted an investigation carefully filed in enormous warehouses. After the fall of the East German government and the opening of the files, it became a point of pride to have been investigated, of shame to have informed.  British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote a book investigating the informants who helped to amass the file created on himself.

Has the NSA reached Stasi levels of interference and snooping?  Certainly their technological power to gather and hold information outstrips the clumsy files filled with cards used by the East Germans.  That being said, East Germans had no avenue to protest the widespread collection of personal information, no functional constitution protecting their rights, no legal or democratic alternative to the dictators in control.

Critics of the NSA point to the potential abuse of power.  If officials in general did not have track records going back to Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, and beyond, of misusing such information, Americans might have trust in it.  Officials have misused information, wrongfully harming innocent individuals as a result.

Around the world, many now realize that the NSA snoops on them as well.  Few can argue that this surveillance has foiled terrorists in many nations, but it still raises questions of sovereign rights and power. 

Like other agencies who have gradually crept more into citizens' private lives, the problems remain in the potential more than the actual.  What happens if a less scrupulous administration comes to power? What if they do use the full range of information possibilities for political purposes instead of national defense.  The Internal Revenue Service back to FDR has been used politically, why not also information gathered by the NSA?

Constitutional safeguards exist because the Founders did not trust future governments to respect rights.  It would be wise to restrain all government agencies in their search for more information and weigh carefully what is done in the name of national security.

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