Trumping the Stasi

Doctor Who manages to appeal to both my generation (who remember it from “before”) and the current youngsters who don’t have to worry with really rubbish effects these days – everything looks very real. One of the episodes a few years ago was set in the world of the reality show Big Brother, in which the contestants are supposedly being observed day and night. The extent to which that is true seems to vary by country according to what is culturally acceptable, or at least possible. I can’t imagine anything worse than being observed all the time. And the film ‘The Truman Show’ was based on the idea of someone’s entire existence being a reality show.

All good entertainment (well, maybe not Big Brother now I think of it, I can’t see the attraction). And at least it couldn’t happen in real life, could it?

Some government organisations are familiar to most in the Western world. FBI, CIA and NSA in the US, the old KGB, now FSB, and the Stasi in East Germany. Can you imagine if any of those agencies could get anywhere near a Big Brother world, where they could monitor us all the time? If you saw the film The Lives of Others, you will have seen what now comes across as a lack of technological sophistication in the Stasi’s operations, but remember that this was now decades ago. And of course, that was a Soviet bloc country, so attempts to spy on its citizens was to be expected. Their values were completely different from the Western powers, for whom individual freedom was paramount. Or so went the narrative.


Then came Snowden.  And, thanks to him, we found out that the US and UK governments have been running operations on a scale so vast it is scarcely imaginable. And something the Stasi could only have dreamed of (and probably did in their wildest imaginations).

One of the other authors at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was Luke Harding. I confess that I didn’t really know a lot about Edward Snowden before the event and went along to find out more. It’s set me off on an unexpected journey of discovery into topics of which I thought I had a reasonable factual understanding. Last week’s blog was about more than running in sandals by the way, it’s also about how the things we thought we knew can be totally wrong. More on that another time.

Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man is the story of Snowden and the Guardian team that worked with him to reveal the extent of government surveillance of ordinary civilians. That bit’s rather important. You and me. Not terrorist suspects (the usual justification for any infringement of our rights), not people suspected of anything else illegal, us. Just because they can. No, it doesn’t mean someone is reading your e-mails, but our e-mail and phone data is apparently being captured and stored.

I can’t find that in any of the UK political parties’ manifestos. You know, ‘If elected, we will set up an elaborate system where we tap the major communications cables running through the UK and record as much as we possibly can on you, our electorate. We won’t need a court order beforehand, we’ll just do it because we can. We will assume everyone might be up to something we would want to know about, and we want to know about everything.’

Harding’s book lays out the extent of the information gathering exercise being undertaken, and the reaction of the US and UK governments to what Snowden revealed, including the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lying to Congress about it:


‘In March 2013, Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that the US government does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans. The statement was untrue, as Snowden would reveal and Clapper would himself later admit. It was also perhaps a felony.’

And closer to home, what did David Cameron do about the revelations?

‘The prime minister […] chose to shoot the messenger. He dropped ominous hints that charges could follow if the Guardian carried on publishing. In a speech in Brussels, Cameron said that he couldn’t afford to take a “la-di-da, airy fairy” view of the work of the intelligence services.’

Harding goes into detail of the process which the Guardian followed to ensure that nothing that could harm intelligence operatives was published in the newspaper, dealing with the common assertion that the information in the Snowden papers compromised state security.

So why was so little of this covered in the other media? In the UK, according to Harding, the media were warned off (via a ‘DA’ notice which suggests that there could be national security implications). That seems to have been enough to trump the public’s right to know of what their elected officials were sanctioning.

So back to the Stasi and East Germany. Another of the scenarios I discussed with East German journalists (included in my book) was revealing secret government documents. What did they have to say about this one? Here are some of their comments, I’ll leave it to you to join any dots you might wish to.

‘I find that fundamentally OK, yes, definitely, because all governments tend, I believe, irrespective of whether in the East or in the West, left or right, only to expect of the valued population that which the government considers to be right and important, and that is not always what is really important and above all what the truth is.’

‘There is an unspeakable practice within politics of keeping things secret, for the simple reason of making politics easier. So the question would be whether that is even politics, of course it is politics, but not the understanding of politics which I have. My understanding is of course about making things as transparent as possible, in order to open precisely this access to society, to let them participate in social decisions. The whole reason for there being media is really that politics has failed in this question for hundreds of years.’

‘The majority of government documents classified as secret serve to cover up some mechanisms of power which deserve to be made public.’

You might remember the storm that erupted in Germany when it transpired that the US had been bugging Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Germany has learned lessons from its past which the US and UK appear not to. There is a wonderful irony towards the end of Harding’s book when he notes that many of those involved in bringing to light Snowden’s information now live in Berlin. Not just Berlin, though. East Berlin. The former home of the Stasi.

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