Political Speech, the East-German Stasi, & the U.S. FBI
The control of the politics of information and mobilization in East Germany extended far beyond the desire to control a particular political narrative.
Indeed, as academic Andreas Glaeser notes in “Political Epistemics”, the chief objective of the Stasi was to dismantle, prevent and reverse any and all progress towards “the formation of party-critical institutions.”
As a matter of strategy, the specific tactics used by the police in East Germany were aimed at the political imagination that precedes the creation of political institutions and mobilization as much as they were aimed at actual political bodies, either institutional or individual.
Modern Day Intelligence Agencies Target Political Actors
The ACLU’s valuable FOIA requests keep revealing new layers to FBI surveillance of the political acts of Americans, including of political protests in Baltimore and Ferguson; of Black Lives Matter activists via social media channels; and of Occupy Wall Street Organizers.
In September 2013, the ACLU published Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority. In the report, the ACLU painstakingly details, chapter and verse, the dangerous overreach by America’s most powerful domestic surveillance and law enforcement agency.
The FBI Considers all Political Advocacy to Be Extreme & All Non-Violent Civil Demonstrations as Terrorism
The FBI also targeted political advocacy organizations with renewed vigor after 9/11…FBI training continues to describe political activism as an “extremist” tactic and non-violent civil disobedience as terrorism.
In 2014 and 2015, journalists established that law enforcement agencies routinely conduct surveillance campaigns against social justice groups and specific activists.
In 2015, the Intercept obtained concrete evidence that revealed BLM activists in New York were tracked beginning as early as December 2014. Hundreds of documents recovered from NY agencies, including the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Metro-North Railroad revealed a pattern of surveillance more extensive then previously uncovered.
In December 2014, the Chicago Police Department, it was reported, had deployed Stingray technology to intercept communications at local protests.
In the summer of 2015, reporters at the Intercept began sounding the alarm that activists were being targeted by the Department of Homeland Security.
According to reporters at Mother Jones, Zero Fox, a cybersecurity intelligence contractor, named Baltimore activist DeRay Mckesson as a “threat actor”.
At this point, local, regional, national and even private security intelligence agencies are targeting political speech in the U.S. This multifaceted and multi-pronged renewed focus on surveilling political actors in the U.S. is not new. New forms of technology, however, have altered the scope of the surveillance and the breadth of the chilling effects on the political speech of Americans.
Targeting Social Justice Leaders
Leaders in social justice groups have been singled out for heightened levels of scrutiny according to Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College.
“Historically, law enforcement, both local and national, have a track record of keeping files on activists, engaging in surveillance, and targeting for excessive enforcement action people identified in leadership roles in social movement…” (https://theintercept.com/2015/08/18/undercover-police-spied-on-ny-black-lives-matter/)
FOIA documents reveal how the FBI provides support to local law enforcement during protests.
Conflation of Political Speech & Acts With Crimes
This conflation of political speech and political mobilization with a crime and the elevation of civil disobedience to domestic terrorism is problematic. It can and has in East-Germany served to place citizens on notice that their mere participation could result in criminalization.
This tactic, whereby entire categories of actions and causes are placed outside the scope of legitimate political discussion is common to repressive regimes. It is particularly effective because it creates a tautological law enforcement structure whereby political or civil actions by some groups or those who support some specific causes are subject to investigation by definition.
In other words, Black Lives Matters activists are under surveillance not because of their political conduct, but because the political movement to which they belong to is itself a designated threat. And the political movement itself was classified as a threat because of the racial makeup of those who belong to it.
In comparison, there is no indication the Oath Keepers, a self-styled militia instrumental in the Oregon standoff of 2016, are being subjected to a similar characterization. This is the case despite the fact that members of the Oath Keepers have shot at federal agents, squatted on federal land and physically refused to follow the law.
Juxtapose this with activists and protestors using Twitter, marches, slogans, hashtags and sometimes being interviewed on TV being labeled a greater threat in the estimation of law enforcement agents.
The FBI uses many of the same tactics it uses against AMEMSA communities, including invasive surveillance, infiltration, and sting operations using agents provocateur.
But the FBI has also been using its expanded powers to conduct inappropriately harsh overt investigations that appear designed to suppress political activity. (https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/unleashed-and-unaccountable-fbi-report.pdf)
Glaser’s Notes on Political Surveillance & Infiltration
The Stasi perceived and acted upon the world predominantly with the help of part-time secret informants specially recruited for this purpose.
Not surprisingly this created a host of principal-agent problems. The full-time agents of the secret police had to find, motivate, and instruct suitable part-timers to gather the information needed while inducing them to engage only in actions the Stasi deemed acceptable.
In East Germany, Glaeser notes, the net effect of intimate and ubiquitous forms of surveillance was to force would-be political actors to experience immediate and concrete fears that decreased their willingness to act upon their ideas.
In short, the police succeeded in countering the emergence of any legitimate political dissent in many cases, precisely because they stripped individuals of their cognitive and intellectual safety nets by pitting everyone against one another.
A core component of CVE programs asks teachers, social workers, and school administrators to monitor and report to law enforcement on children in their care…The document purports to “serve as a guide to educate school personnel about at-risk behaviors and activities that assist students with reducing social and psychological commitment to violence as a method of resolving a grievance.”
Today, the FBI uses various suspicious activity reporting collections and community-based programs that resemble, both in spirit and actual fact, the tactics used in East Germany to pit parents against children and teachers against students and neighbor against neighbor.
Extrajudicial Punishment: The Disruption Strategy
The FBI’s overbroad and aggressive use of its investigative and surveillance powers, and its willingness to employ “disruption strategies” against subjects not charged with crimes…
During the FBI’s relentless investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, for instance, The New York Times reported that several people falling under suspicion lost jobs, were placed on watch lists, had citizenship and visa applications denied, and personal relationships destroyed.
Without Transparency, There Can Be No Accountability
Courts have been reticent to challenge government secrecy demands and, despite years of debate in Congress regarding the proper scope of domestic surveillance, it took unauthorized leaks by a whistleblower to finally reveal the government’s secret interpretations of these laws and the Orwellian scope of its domestic surveillance programs.
Using the harassment/disruption strategies popularized by the KGB, the FBI is targeting immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and political dissidents for surveillance, infiltration, investigation, and “disruption” strategies whenever it does not have a bonafide legal case.
In the age of Obama, perhaps we could have consoled ourselves (wrongly) with the fact that we had a progressive president, in the age of Trump, however, there is every reason to fear the use of investigation strategies that are not geared towards indictment or prosecution, venues where the Constitution’s guarantees and rights can be applied.