Chomsky v. Gellman on the Stasi

Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman did a panel at an MIT Big Data conference. In the middle of it, they get into a quasi debate about whether the NSA is like the Stasi (this starts after 20:00).

For what it’s worth, I think they agree that the Stasi was far more “monstrous” (Chomsky’s term) than the US and NSA. Chomsky’s point is that Americans are making the same argument in defending the dragnet that many apparatchiks in monstrous regimes also made in complete good faith. Whereas Gellman argues that the scale is so different that such comparisons risk distracting the discussion.

All that said, I wanted to focus on this line from Gellman (at 25:00).

Stasi was knowingly, deliberately, consciously discovering and squashing dissent, blackmailing people, arresting people, preventing the emergence of any kind of opposition force, I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here at all.

I agree with it generally — the NSA is not squashing all dissent (which is not to say other domestic agencies don’t harass dissenters in organized fashion, possibly employing NSA-related data several steps removed).

But I’m not Muslim or Arab, and I’m not sure I’d be as quick to say the same about the effect of the dragnet — and associated actions — on those communities. I noted back on (heh) 9/11 that the government justified the dragnet, in part, because it helps identify people the government can recruit as assets.

It turns out that rationale was built into the (FISC-authorized) program from the start. Only, when the government laid out the case in its original memorandum in support of the phone dragnet, it specified these targeted people would become FBI informants (that is, domestic informants).

The ability to see who communicates with whom may lead to the discovery of other terrorist operatives, may help to identify hubs or common contacts between targets of interest who were previously thought to be unconnected, and may help to discover individuals willing to become FBI assets.

So start with the government’s stated intent to use a database of all the phone-based (and, presumably, Internet-based, though I haven’t seen this language in the more limited PR/TT documents that have been released) relationships in the US — which shows not just the people who are three degrees of separation from someone who is more likely than not “associated” with a terrorist group, but also things like who is having extramarital affairs they want to continue to hide — to find informants.

Then consider the way the government very sloppily dismisses both the generalized threat to Freedom of Association posed by the dragnet, as well as the possibility that someone more likely than not associated with a terrorist organization might be talking, on first hop, someone in an NGO like CAIR or ACLU. Such consideration very quickly gets you to the point where at least the activities of such “dissident” groups would be chilled — to say nothing of groups like NYC’s Arab American Association, a social services group the NYPD targeted for infiltration.

Those actions don’t squash dissent for everyone. They just go a long way toward squashing dissent for Muslims and Arabs and South Asians other potentially targeted groups.

It would take expanding this activity two orders of magnitude, at least, to reach the level of generalized infiltration the Stasi accomplished; Gellman’s point about scope is correct. We’re not there yet (though if any Administration ever wants to go there, the dragnet has apparently already proven useful in systematizing the selection of potential informants).

But I do recognize I’m not in the position of saying how corrosive this secret program has been on the communities that would be most targeted by it.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. What Constitution? says:

    Don’t forget to add “this week” when describing “the communities that would be most targeted by it”. Once the machinery is in place, presuming the secret instructions will always be the same is a tad optimistic, perhaps.

  2. P J Evans says:

    @What Constitution?:
    Remembering some of the rhetoric spread around by government officials under Bush43 (and to some extent, Bush41), I think they’d have enjoyed taking it as far as they could against dissidents of all kinds.

  3. ess emm says:

    I agree with it generally — the NSA is not squashing all dissent (which is not to say other domestic agencies don’t harass dissenters in organized fashion, possibly employing NSA-related data several steps removed).

    1. I agree that NSA is not the secret police.

    2. Where do you think we are we on the Squash-Dissent-O-Meter, ew? My own feeling is that for high-profile dissenters (Swartz, Greenwald,Drake, Risen) the meter has a pretty high reading.

    And of course Occupy was the first real mass movement that expressed dissent from outside the system and it was squashed.

  4. C says:

    If you want to get a sense of how corrosive the FBI’s current ops are I suggest listening to these two programs from This American Life. They point out just how the informant programs have been used to bad effect both for the affected communities and for actual law enforcement.

    In the first program a muslim community actually tries to turn an FBI informant over to the FBI because he was freaking them out. It doesn’t go well.

  5. CTuttle says:

    I agree with it generally — the NSA is not squashing all dissent (which is not to say other domestic agencies don’t harass dissenters in organized fashion, possibly employing NSA-related data several steps removed).

    But I’m not Muslim or Arab, and I’m not sure I’d be as quick to say the same about the effect of the dragnet — and associated actions — on those communities.

    This is certainly timely… Top-Secret Document Reveals NSA Spied On Porn Habits As Part Of Plan To Discredit ‘Radicalizers’

    The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.

  6. Nigel says:


    Nothing to worry about there, according to Stewart Abercrombie Baker.
    Nothing at all.

    Any system can be abused, Baker allowed, but he said fears of the policy drifting to domestic political opponents don’t justify rejecting it. “On that ground you could question almost any tactic we use in a war, and at some point you have to say we’re counting on our officials to know the difference,” he said…

    Baker said that until there is evidence the tactic is being abused, the NSA should be trusted to use its discretion. “The abuses that involved Martin Luther King occurred before Edward Snowden was born,” he said. “I think we can describe them as historical rather than current scandals. Before I say, ‘Yeah, we’ve gotta worry about that,’ I’d like to see evidence of that happening, or is even contemplated today, and I don’t see it.”

  7. Clark Hilldale says:

    A post about how security state apologists (and others) are drawing the red herring of their beloved Stasi across the arguments of those who criticize our NatSec overseers is a good place to bring up a generally overlooked Greenwald piece from September.

    Material from the Snowden cache provides the following glimpse of how the security state views people who criticize them online.

    But perceiving drone opponents as “threats” or even “adversaries” is hardly new. Top secret US government documents obtained by the Guardian from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden characterize even the most basic political and legal opposition to drone attacks as part of “propaganda campaigns” from America’s “adversaries”.

    That’s right, the National Security State categorizes people like EW as “adversaries” who are conducting propaganda operations against the USA.

    Maybe nobody is preventing online criticism of NatSec extremists yet, but it means that attention is being paid to such activity for future official action if deemed necessary.

  8. joanneleon says:

    I don’t know how we would know if the NSA was squashing dissenters. We don’t know who they decide to “tip” the FBI about, especially when we know that the DoJ goes back and reconstructs fictitious investigations when they decide to charge someone for whom they’ve done a sneak and peek. There are a number of ways in which they could work against dissent and we’d never know and they would not necessarily be the ones on the front line carrying it out. And I can’t help but wonder about Hastings, though if he was targeted by a govt agency, there are others who I’d put on a suspect list (one in particular) way ahead of NSA.

    But Alexander (and maybe others) have mentioned numerous times things about how they find things that they then “tip” other agencies about. I’d love to know if they had any involvement with the intelligence operations conducted on Occupy. Alexander seems to mention Wall Street a lot when he talks about cybersecurity so why not for other operations?

    Also, this also makes me leery about Gellman again. I was initially very leery of him and then over time, I changed my mind a lot. But the way he jumps in with the apologia for the IC puts up another red flag for me. Listening to that conversation, it just doesn’t sit right with me, the way he jumped in so quickly to try to tone down Chomsky’s statements.

  9. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    I find some of what Barton says in completing his statement, following the segment that EW quoted, to be either naive or deceitful.

    A rough transcript is: Barton … “and frankly as a journalist I would have been very very happy to find evidence of that and I was quite interested to see throughout this material and I know that Snowden would have been [missed word] any evidence of spying on NGO’s or journalists or political opposition or using surveillance powers force of corrupt self enriching purposes, I’ve seen none of that and I would not support the comparison if you took it more broadly.”

    Have we seen no evidence of NGO’s, journalists, or political opposition being targeted? Has there been no ‘self enriching purposes’ to any of the NSA activity?

    While Barton’s comment may be the least dishonest thing he could say if he were talking about NSA activities within the US they become a blaring foghorn of dishonesty when applied to those of us not in the US.

    Does Barton really not recognize that it is the entire world population that IS NOT a US citizen that feel cheated and quite easily equate the NSA with the Stasi?

  10. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I’m very late to this, but I was at that conference that was headlined by Chomsky and Gellman, and, boy, was it awful. The premise of the thing was “Big Data/Bad Data” but it didn’t really engage on that topic at all. Even when it got close to good topics, it seemed to veer away. I wrote about everything I think it missed here:

    I think the Gellman/Chomsky interchange missed one key thing. If you look at the surveillance state writ large and include the war on drugs and the atttendant criminal records that are created and also include undocumented or immigrant populations, you certainly have a different picture. Sure, it’s still not the Stasi, but you can be pretty oppressive and still not be the Stasi. Focusing on just the NSA loses that bigger perspective.

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