“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used. This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
Former Commander, East German Stasi
Communist Secret Police
BERLIN - Wolfgang Schmidt was seated in Berlin’s 1,200-foot-high TV tower, one of the few remaining landmarks left from the former East Germany. Peering out over the city that lived in fear when the Communist Party ruled it, he pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face.
“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct Communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.
In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more reports McClatchy News.
East Germany’s Stasi has long been considered the standard of police state surveillance during the Cold War years, a monitoring regime so vile and so intrusive that agents even noted when their subjects were overheard engaging in sexual intercourse.
Against that backdrop, Germans have greeted with disappointment, verging on anger, the news that somewhere in a U.S. government databank are the records of where millions of people were when they made phone calls or what video content they streamed on their computers in the privacy of their homes.
Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.
“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, tried to provide an out for President Barack Obama, offering as a possible explanation for the sweeping nature of the U.S. collection efforts that “the Internet is new to all of us.”
She was roundly mocked for that statement, and her administration appeared far less forgiving more recently, when similar spying charges were leveled against the British government.
“Everyone knows that gathering so much information is bullshit,” said Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy adviser. “It’s a total breach of trust by the government. This is how a society destroys itself.”
For 15 years, the Stasi tracked Weisshuhn’s every move and conversation. His Stasi file, which he, like many other Stasi targets, reviewed after the Berlin Wall collapsed, ran to 9,000 pages. He was shocked, and he’s quick to stress that the United States shouldn’t be compared to the totalitarian East German state.
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