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No, Not a "Stasi" State. But Still Indefensible

David Callahan

Republicans distrust government so much that they routinely label moderate policies as "socialist." Such name calling is demagoguery, of course, but it's also plain silly: For instance, an Obamacare similar to Bob Dole's healthcare plan – leaving private players largely in charge -- is not socialism.

Likewise, revelations of systematic NSA surveillance do not mean we live in a “modern-day Stasi state,” as Tim Shorrock argues in a recent Nation article. Or as The Guardian suggested in a piece Monday.

In case you’re rusty on Cold War history, the Stasi were the East German secret police and they ran the most extensive surveillance system in modern history. Yes, that system involved electronic eavesdropping, but it’s more notable feature was turning ordinary citizens into informants that spied on one another. The Stasi also engaged in harassment and blackmail of dissidents, channeled money to neo-Nazi groups, engaged in secret assassinations, trained Idi Amin’s secret police, and so on.

More to the point, the Stasi were the repressive arm of a totalitarian government accountable to no one.  

What we have in the case of the NSA is something very different – an agency operating under a legal regime established with overwhelming backing by our elected representatives. Let’s not forget: 98 U.S. Senators in 2001 voted for Patriot Act and 89 voted for its reauthorization in 2006.

The American public has also largely been on board – and remains so, even after recent revelations. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

A large majority of Americans say the federal government should focus on investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised, and most support the blanket tracking of telephone records in an effort to uncover terrorist activity, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.

None of these means that what the NSA is doing is okay. My guess is that a majority of Americans also supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The idea of the Bill of the Rights is that certain rights should be inviolate no matter what the will of the people.

Daniel Ellsberg writes that “Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people's privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state.” Ellsberg also writes that “Neither the president nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the fourth amendment – and that's why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from the American people.”

The ACLU has filed a suit challenging the spying system as unconstitutional, saying it infringes upon both the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment.

Moreover, evidence is piling up that the executive branch has overstepped the legal regime that Congress authorized. “The administration claims authority to sift through details of our private lives because the Patriot Act says that it can,” Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “I disagree. I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.” Certainly the Bush era was filled with various repugnant extra-legal activities and the Obama Administration has embraced more continuity than change in this area.

Whatever the case, as a New York Times editorial points out, the choice between security and privacy is largely a falsely one. There are ways to protect our security without spying on every citizen.