Examining the Stasi, Seeing the NSA

From the Archives: For many years, the East German Stasi was viewed as the most totalitarian of intelligence services, relentlessly spying on its citizens during the Cold War. But the Stasi’s capabilities pale in comparison to what the NSA can now do, notes former U.S. intelligence analyst Elizabeth Murray.

By Elizabeth Murray
Special to Consortium News
Feb. 3, 2015

On a chilly morning in late January 2015,  an unlikely assortment of former U.S. and U.K. intelligence officers gathered at the former headquarters of the Stasi, the former East Germany’s Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit  [Ministry of State Security], for a tour of Berlin’s “Stasi Museum.”

The delegation – which included ex-officers from the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and British MI5, who count themselves among the members of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII) – had traveled to Berlin to confer the 2015 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence on former NSA senior technical director-turned-whistleblower William Binney, for his role in exposing the extent of mass surveillance of ordinary citizens in the United States.

The Stasi museum in Berlin. (Photo credit: Prof. Quatermass)

The Stasi museum in Berlin. (Photo credit: Prof. Quatermass)

In accepting the award, Binney said he resigned from the NSA in 2001 after realizing that the agency was “purposefully violating the Constitution” with its “bulk acquisition of data against U.S. citizens … first against U.S. citizens by the way, not foreigners.”

Binney had worked the Soviet target for nearly 30 years at NSA, “so it was easy for me to recognize the danger” to democracy and individual freedom posed by bulk data collection, “that’s what the Stasi did, the KGB did it – every totalitarian state down through history did that” (albeit with a lot less technological power than was available to the NSA).

Now, in a strangely fitting yet ironic twist, Binney stood among fellow whistleblowers in the entrance foyer at the spy headquarters of what was once the world’s foremost totalitarian surveillance state, one of whose former operatives, Wolfgang Schmidt, noted wistfully that the current extent of mass surveillance of the domestic U.S. population would have been a “dream come true” for the Stasi.

As Stasi Museum tour guide Julia Simoncelli described the inner workings of the East German intelligence service in great detail, it was telling to observe the facial expressions of Binney and his whistleblower colleagues as Simoncelli discussed what had been Stasi’s equivalent of the current U.S. “Insider Threat” program and the psychological levers used to manipulate citizens into informing on one another.

“They [the Stasi] figured out that there was a technique far more effective than force or violence to convince people to inform on one another, and that was to persuade them that doing so would be ‘good for them’, i.e., a place for their child at university, career advancement, an apartment, access to Western luxuries, et cetera,” explained Simoncelli.

The Stasi also made a point of uncovering what motivated a particular person, including what he/she feared most (anyone who has read Orwell’s 1984’ or seen the film “The Lives of Others” will have seen vivid examples of how such information can be exploited).

Annie Machon, a Sam Adams Associate and former MI5 officer who lived in exile for three years after blowing the whistle on MI5 illegalities along with her then-partner David Shayler, commented that the techniques used by the Stasi “brought back a lot of memories for me from the 1990s. Despite it being the analog [versus digital] era, it was startling how much personal data they could capture, and how much worse it is now for all of us.”

She observed that the Stasi Museum is “a potent warning from history,” adding that “the sense of loss of privacy in your own home, when phoning your family, and when talking to friends who may potentially be turned against you is corrosive to the human spirit.”

Machon noted that while the former East Germany “is always excoriated as the worst police state ever,” MI5 was deploying “exactly the same intrusive techniques as the Stasi against hundreds of thousands of political activists in the U.K. for decades, and only stopped in the mid-1990s.The penetration levels were not as high per capita, nor were people snatched and interrogated then (unless they were Irish) but the paranoid, barricade mentality was equivalent.”

Retired U.S. Army Major Todd Pierce, who served on the defense team for two Guantanamo Prison detainees in his capacity as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer, stated that “it was the Stasi that led the way in torture techniques, with us merely adopting theirs.”

The Stasi, Pierce said, “even led the way in teaching us about kidnapping-renditions, as they would kidnap West Germans and rendition them to East Germany for trial by military court (Military Commissions).”

Former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, a previous recipient of the Sam Adams Award and Time Magazine’s 2002 Person of the Year for her role in exposing the FBI failure to share information that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks, commented that “what jumped out at me from that [Stasi Museum] tour in comparing all the excessive spying on the personal lives of citizens and oppression and abuse during that period of East German history was that, despite the use of different ideologies, religions and loyalty groups, and despite the use of new spy technologies, what remains constant is this form of ‘control-freak’ perceived need for domination.

“Those in power do tend to be ‘true believers’ in their own noble cause justifying their terribly wrongful, illegal methods.”

Rowley added that current “FBI-CIA methods against the Muslim community in the United States are not much different [from Stasi tactics], most likely also assisted by intelligence unlawfully gained through electronic surveillance to extort and coerce collusion.”

And, in earlier comments during the Sam Adams Award ceremony, former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, who won the Sam Adams Award in 2011 jointly with former Justice Department attorney Jesselyn Radack, reflected: “Here we are, on what used to be the front lines of the Cold War, facing the greatest threat in terms of what we’ve created electronically which is the real prospect of turnkey tyranny of a digital kind.”

Drake said he “never imagined that the model of the Stasi, which was to know everything, would turn into the collect-it-all digital dragnet.”

As the former intelligence officers-turned-whistleblowers walked among the well-preserved offices and conference rooms of a former totalitarian state’s internal spy apparatus, the sense of deja vu and irony of what the United States of America has become was clearly not lost on any of them.

Elizabeth Murray served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council before retiring after a 27-year career in the U.S. government. She is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

16 comments for “Examining the Stasi, Seeing the NSA

  1. typical
    March 22, 2021 at 17:43

    I woke up this morning thinking about how the United States is slowly turning into something closer to the Chinese Communist Party. Before long we will have a one party system. The media and the government are already one and the same. NSA and big business are taking privacy away. Non-mainstream ideas are being shouted down and do not have a voice. I realize now global warming is not the biggest problem future generations will face.

  2. Sandy
    March 22, 2021 at 15:38

    I asked a German friend that had relatives in East Germany what happened to the border guards that shot at citizens and Stasi officers etc. after the wall came down? She became incensed, and said “The same! They just went back to work for government.” In other words, it’s not about ideology, it’s about power.
    In my book, its those kind of folks that are the big problem, and it’s out job to learn to recognize them and ovoid giving them any power greater than a push broom.

  3. Vera Gottlieb
    March 22, 2021 at 12:16

    Just by any chance…did NSA take lessons from the Stasi???

    • Vincent Berg
      March 22, 2021 at 13:16

      It’s extremely likely that they were actively recruited by CIA, much as OSS (CIA forerunner) recruited nazi intelligence agents as WW2 approached conclusion, and thereafter.

  4. February 5, 2015 at 12:13

    was’nt sam adams the lawyer who reresented the british troops in the shoot heard around the world during the boston masacre

    • Fred
      February 5, 2015 at 16:11

      That was Sam’s brother John Adams. What’s your point?

    • Tionico
      February 6, 2015 at 04:23

      It was John Adams, and he successfully defended the British Regular sodliers accused of murder in the incident known as the Boston Massacre. As it turned out, thre was not sufficient evidence to convict the accused, even in a court rather symathetic to the slain colonials. Furthe,r it seems the colonials had been rather abrasive in their deliberate provocation. Seems the soliders likely fired in self-defense, in a very real fear for their own lives. Adams declared, when confronted for “taking the side of our enemies”, that EVERYONE deserves a fair trial,all the evidence presented, and good arguments made. He was a man of soid integrity, and did not sll out, but rather let the known evidence carry the case…. in this instance, to acquittal.

      No one was charged with anything in the firing on the Colonials at Lexington. Truth be told the identity of who fired that first shot has never been ascertained. Most likely is that some bystander in the gathering crowd of spectators fired, either wilfully to incite, or an accidental discharge (quite common in those times of relatively crude flintlock arms). the British, on tenterhooks, had presented arms and, without orders, fired a ragged and incomplete volley. The Colonials, after taking some eight fatal hits, did return an equally ragged volley. At that point it was a war, no longer a demonstration. The King’s Troops had been fired upon wilfully. From that moment it was eitiher all hang for treason, or run them off the continent.

  5. BAE Systems
    February 4, 2015 at 21:09

    The NSA & GCHQ are using mass surveillance to gather up potential blackmail information on politicians and judges. They are both criminal agencies. Also an illegal program that they are involved in called organized stalking is used to psychologically harass members of the public and they are also using the information that they are gathering up from the mass surveillance to do this. The NSA & GCHQ are no different to the Stasi maybe even worse.

    • John
      February 5, 2015 at 19:54

      No doubt true, and so is your conclusion. But the politicians and judges are 100 percent criminals, as I know from long direct experience, and their use of economic power to control democracy makes war upon the US, the definition of treason in the Constitution. So one could argue that one totalitarian branch has the power to stop the other, but not that democracy could likely be saved that way. If only NSA would bust all the judges and politicians, there would be cause for some hope.

  6. John
    February 4, 2015 at 19:36

    Mr. Parry, the website comment section has a new technical fault: when the “password” timer has expired, it does not show a new password to copy (as it did previously), even if the page is reloaded, cookies erased, etc. So for those who have spent some time writing a comment, there is no way to post the comment. I was able to comment yesterday only by trying again after a few hours. Your website was also not updated for the past weekend, and suddenly showed those articles early Tuesday. Perhaps a website migration or security issue.

  7. Steve Naidamast
    February 4, 2015 at 15:21

    As a senior software engineer I learned a long time ago that information collection to any extreme; either too little or too much, negates any possibility of developing a working decision-tree paradigm. If you have too few variables\information any credible decision-tree will simply yield a familiar “not enough data” response. Too much, and the decision-tree cannot produce an accurate answer worth pursuing.

    This was demonstrated to me in a project in 2000 where I developed a pattern-recognition algorithm to help filter out “garbage” data so that the results, which had so far been highly erroneous in the application, could at least produce credible, near-accurate results in about 70% of the cases.

    In the current mode of operations that the NSA uses it has been publicly documented that they had failed to adopt an intelligence gathering set of algorithms that had clearly demonstrated its efficacy by doing such “garbage” data elimination, in favor of the general bulk-collection techniques that store everything and run through all such data through current algorithms.

    The result has been disastrous with US intelligence services who make use of such technologies failing to unearth any credible threats against our nation, though in some cases such threats did in fact exist and were foiled by other means.

    Unfortunately, with the merging of US corporations with our security and military services, irreparable harm has been done to all of these institutions as the corporate side of the equation is only interested in profits, which in this case is merely sucking more taxpayer monies into their own coffers. The result in all such institutions has been a complete deterioration in quality and results leaving our intelligence, military, and police organizations in complete disrepair as intelligence becomes less informative, military service more dangerous from a lack of quality equipment and training, and a continued militarization of our police who more often than not misuse there aberrant training that goes directly against their core, sociological constructs.

    • Paul Velte
      February 6, 2015 at 19:08

      Your comments remind me of the old fable about the leprechaun who was caught and forced by the woodsman to tell where his pot of gold was buried, next to a tree. The woodsman then tied a ribbon around the tree and left to get a shovel. When he returned, every tree had a ribbon tied around it. This is the weakness of their data mining methods–we all need to include ‘bomb’ in every email we send.

    • Uncle Joe
      March 22, 2021 at 12:34

      Data collection is not about accuracy but about leverage. If the data they need does not exist they simply create it. And they don’t even need to create data, all they have to do is create the illusion of it, thus the NYT trumpeting the “fact” of Russian election hacking evidenced by “anonymous intelligence officials citing secret documents”.

  8. February 4, 2015 at 11:17

    The big difference between the NSA and the Stasi is the active, integral participation of private sector corporations in the gathering, analyzing and storing of information on private citizens. This fact was exposed along with the other data when Edward Snowden blew his whistle.

    I have to reflect that one of the reasons spying has become so extensive and pervasive is that the quest for profits in this industry requires the corporations to constantly improve their technology, expand their market share and broaden the scope of their operational practices. It’s just the business model necessary to yield a strong revenue stream (aside from the social control aspects).

  9. bloodypitchfork
    February 4, 2015 at 08:00

    Given the fact that by virtue of those sub-human psychopaths at CIA and NSA who adopted the very practices of those enemy regimes to which my father and millions of other soldiers in WW11 gave their lives to destroy, my country has now devolved into the United States of Depravity. And now, as police militarize, and domestic local and Federal law enforcement embrace a ubiquitous nation wide network of NSA and FBI fed digital surveillance, that would astound Orwel, it now appears we have actually reached the bottom of the abyss that Senator Frank Church so prophetically warned us would happen, notwithstanding the warning of Eisenhower in regards to the exponential expansion of the military/industrial complex. We didn’t listen.
    However, there is one distinct difference between those totalitarian regimes with Stazi organization, and the United States. The 2nd Amendment. In that regard, it doesn’t take an Einstein, to understand the very first undertaking that allow totalitarianism to gain a foothold, is to disarm the citizenry. Given the fact there are over 300 million gun owners, the USG knows that an illegal usurpation by virtue of gun confiscation, would elicit a round of unintended consequences of such proportions that they dare not try, no matter the power of the USG, as the 100 Heads Life and Casualy policy is alive and well in a broad cross section of the gun rights community, notwithstanding the growing understanding of 4th Generation warfare, to which the Department of Defense has NEVER succeeded in winning a single war in completion. EVER. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan are living proof.
    This is why, at this very moment, forces within the local, state and Federal governments are doing everything in their legal capacity to chip away at the gun rights guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment. By virtue of regulation and registration, the collectivists who pray at the alter of the USG’s monopoly of violence, are in a daily struggle to remove as many weapons as possible from legal ownership, notwithstanding creating a nationwide database of gun owners, to which, should they succeed in their pipe dream of dislodging the 2nd Amendment from the Bill of Rights, will give them the very thing every tyranny ever dreamed of. A list of gun owners. This is why, at this very moment, a community of gun owners in Washington State, are preparing an unprecedented show of ARMED civil disobedience, resolved to display that “….SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED” means more than words on a piece of paper. As the Magna Carta, served time and time again over the course of centuries to force the Monarchy into service of the people, so will the 2nd Amendment. Make no mistake. WE WILL NOT BE DISARMED EVER AGAIN.

    • February 12, 2015 at 16:02

      Interesting, but incorrect.
      Oh, you’re 100% on our government not understanding 4th Gen Warfare (4GW).
      But they have a command of “Fifth Gen” warfare – Economics.
      Guns are being taxed and priced out of the reach of most Americans. Amoroncons think this is a “good thing” – because the legally-owned guns get up and go on killing sprees of their own volition, and the criminals can’t “acquire” guns without legal gun dealers…. (Don’t let the sarcasm stain your rug…)

      HOWEVER: The government can raise the taxes on things, change the restrictions, adjust “mental health” guidelines, restrict imports, and force businesses out of business by making them incapable of earning a profit.
      So, here’s a quick list of things that are being done already… With more to come, no doubt:
      – Inflation of currency (dollar buys less)
      – Increase in fuel prices (increased transport costs drive prices up)
      (the following work in parallel)
      – Registration of firearms – including NICS background checks, but also the laws that any firearms transfer MUST go through a gun dealer.
      – the forms the Feds require dealers to keep? (which supposedly cannot be removed from the store?) Again, de facto registration and therefore CONTROL
      – Leak rumors of gun-grabbing to sppok people into buying guns and ammo – see the above on de facto registrations and paper trails. Evne with the legislation that NICS checks must be destroyed within 24 hours – do you trust a government that can’t stop illegal immigration, but CAN track your car and person ANYWHERE you go? Just doesn’t add up, so I’ll infer an answer…
      – Restrict importation of foreign ammunition, such as AK-47 style (meaning size) ammunition.
      – Restrict manufacture and purchase of “types” of guns, and via trade embargoes and impor trestricionts, of weapons from countries – all in the name of “public safety,” mind .( E.G., the Mosquito, a 1911 look-alike chambered in .22, cannot legally be bought in the communistwealth of Massachusetts, IN PINK. You can buy it in gun metal black, though – because THAT version the manufacturer submitted for proper “Customer safety” testing, but since it costs hundreds and takes time – they didn’t supply a PINK version of the same gun – so that’s illegal to own.)
      – Make labor costs prohibitive, e.g., $15 minimum wage
      – Increase costs through licensing fees and training fees
      – Increase costs for effective weapons, or add-ons: E.G., silencer/muffler; Short-Barreled Rifle; Etc.
      – Require permits for ownership and use of whatever you want to prohibit – e.g., to sell alcohol, solicit business door-to-door, sell lemonade…
      – Add as many Felony crimes as possible, to reduce the pool of possible owners
      – Mark ex-cons who have completed all punishment – e.g., they cannot vote, own firearms, etc.
      – Socialize healthcare and leverage that by making “mental health” vagely defined, and easily leveraged to strip citizens of their right to own “weapons”
      – Make es-post-facto laws which make what WAS legal, ILLEGAL – and pursue those who don’t bow to your “authoritah” (Q.V., Connecticut, California, NY, NJ)
      – Shut down the (last) lead smelting plant in the US, which means no more lead for bullets, except what is produced overseas and imported – at significant cost increase. This was done via EPA regulations against the smelting process, making it impossible for that plant to make a profit – and adding to the economic depression, as well, at least for families depending on those jobs.

      When all is said and done, the result is: the citizen can own any gun they want, since there’s no ammunition to be found anyway.
      Yet the restrictions allow for ever more felonies…
      And at the same time, the law doesn’t apply to the Elites (Example, the news anchor who brought illegal weapons to D.C.? No charges. A nobody in NYC who had an expended shotgun shell as a memento? Arrested and charged with felony ownership of ammunition in NYC.)

      They won’t give up easily, but they are PATIENT… and we cannot AFFORD to be kind, considerate, OR patient.
      Fortunately, gasoline and matches are still cheap – and these animals (and their enforcers) sleep in our towns…
      NEVER tolerate evil. Burn out the cancer, and STFU – and disappear.

Comments are closed.