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Merkel Likened NSA to the Stasi

Via the GuardianMerkel compared NSA to Stasi in heated encounter with Obama

In an angry exchange with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel has compared the snooping practices of the US with those of the Stasi, the ubiquitous and all-powerful secret police of the communist dictatorship in East Germany, where she grew up.

[...]

Livid after learning from Der Spiegel magazine that the Americans were listening in to her personal mobile phone, Merkel confronted Obama with the accusation: "This is like the Stasi."

Hyperbole?  Perhaps.  Still, the basic comparison holds:  the state indiscriminately using its authority to invade the privacy of innocent individuals in the name of security.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Rafer Janders says:

    Hyperbole? Perhaps.

    Since Chancellor Merkel, like tens of millions of other Germans, actually spent decades as a victim of the Stasi and experienced what it was like to live under a surveillance state, let’s give her experience some credit and say not hyperbole.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  2. James Pearce says:

    Still, the basic comparison holds: the state indiscriminately using its authority to invade the privacy of innocent individuals in the name of security.

    There was more to the Stasi than that…..

    And more to the NSA program besides “the invasion of privacy.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. edmondo says:

    I guess the most obvious question is, Why is Angela Merkel a racist?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  4. @Rafer Janders: Well, the threats of the Stasi vis-a-vis East Germans was a bit more than what the NSA is doing, to be fair.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  5. @edmondo: I expect that you are trying to be clever here, but help me out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants (the extensiveness of any surveillance largely depended on how valuable a product was to the economy)[13] and one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo).[17] Spies reported every relative or friend who stayed the night at another’s apartment.[17] Tiny holes were drilled in apartment and hotel room walls through which Stasi agents filmed citizens with special video cameras.[17] Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated.[17]

    Yes…just like the NSA data collection that is just like the Google and ATT data collection.
    Tell me edmondo…did you feel repressed when you watched porn on your phone last night?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  7. legion says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Tell me edmondo…did you feel repressed when you watched porn on your phone last night?

    Well, if he ever decides to publicly criticize the NSA, he just might…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. John Peabody says:

    Isn’t the righteous indignation of Ms. Merkel, et al, a wonderful opportunity to nip the NSA in the bud?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. Butch Bracknell says:

    Merkel, as a head of state, isn’t an “innocent individual.” She, like all political leaders, is a legitimate intelligence target.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  10. @Butch Bracknell: If the NSA was just spying on foreign leaders, you might have a point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. michael reynolds says:

    East Germans – and Merkel is one – were told different myths about Germany’s past than West Germans. And of course they tolerated surveillance leading to arrests and imprisonment on purely political grounds – something that is not happening here.

    I thought from the start that Merkel was reaching for some phony moral equivalency. The NSA buying access off Verizon and using the data to hunt terrorists is not the same as the Stasi wiring your bedroom so they can catch you saying something critical about the government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  12. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If the NSA was just spying on foreign leaders, you might have a point.

    I dunno….the point seems to still stand in regards to Merkel. Other, non-Merkel people making the same complaint….yeah, they would have a more legitimate gripe.

    But then again….not to be too semantic over it, but when the NSA uses Google cookies to identify potential hackers, we call it spying. But at what point does it become spying? When Google put the cookie on my machine or when the NSA looked at it?

    To me, that’s an important question and the main reason why I can’t dismiss the various NSA spying programs on sight. Yes, it seems like the NSA is snooping on everyone, but that’s only because we made it so easy for them. In order for these technologies (cellphones and the internet) to function, this information must exist and be passed around.

    Point is, the reason the NSA is collecting all this data is that it’s useful. That’s all. Yes, not only useful if you want to abuse the system in some nebulous way.

    But it’s also useful in making sure your phone call jumps from tower to tower as you drive home on the interstate, useful in routing me to this website, useful in my Christmas shopping and my movie watching.

    And also useful in tracking terrorists, apparently.

    It seems strange that we would focus on the most useless ways to use this information –listening in on phone sex calls, say– could be used while completely disregarding the more useful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, the threats of the Stasi vis-a-vis East Germans was a bit more than what the NSA is doing, to be fair.

    Yes, but as we all know, it is in fact possible to make a comparison between Thing A and Thing B even if Thing A and Thing B aren’t exactly identical — that is, in fact, the very point of a comparison, since if Thing A and Thing B were in fact identical there’d be no point to the comparison.

    So yes, there’ll be a lot of stupid comments to the effect that “well, at least the NSA isn’t forcing people’s families to spy on them” blah blah blah, when that’s not what the Chancellor is actually saying.

    What she is saying is that there’s a lot of similarity between what the Stasi’s goals and methods were — total information access using mass surveillance — and what the NSA’s goal is — total information access using mass surveillance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, the threats of the Stasi vis-a-vis East Germans was a bit more than what the NSA is doing, to be fair.

    Steven, do you think that Angela Merkel — who grew up in East Germany and was a decades-long victim of Stasi surveillance — is actually aware of or not of the differences between the Stasi and NSA?

    Chancellor Merkel knows full well what the Stasi did and what they were like — and yet with this knowledge, she still made the comparison. That should give us pause.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    Merkel, as a head of state, isn’t an “innocent individual.” She, like all political leaders, is a legitimate intelligence target.

    I thought the justification was that we had to protect ourselves from terrorist threats. Is Angela Merkel a terrorist threat?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. I figured that this thread would be either people who thought the Stasi comparison was over the top v. those who thought any qualification of the comparison was unnecessary (and that is how it has played out).

    Obviously, I thought that the comparison was close enough to warrant noting the quote, even if qualifying somewhat (because I think it deserves some).

    The NSA is engaging in mass violations of privacy in the name of security and is using the full power of the state to accomplish that goal. In that way, the comparison holds. In other ways, as noted above, the comparison does not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  17. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    In that way, the comparison holds.

    Conceded.

    But I think a more appropriate comparison would be the FBI under Hoover, only tuned up for the Information Age.

    And even then, the comparison would be weak. The FBI was way worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  18. Rafer Janders says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    Merkel, as a head of state, isn’t an “innocent individual.” She, like all political leaders, is a legitimate intelligence target.

    I just remembered, but Merkel’s phone has likely been tapped since 2002 (see below), while she’s only been Chancellor of Germany since 2005. The surveillance, then, began long before Merkel was Germany’s head of government (not head of state, that’s the president), when she was merely an opposition leader in the Bundestag. If we were spying on her, then it stands to reason that we spying on most every nationally-known German politician, whether in power or not.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/26/nsa-surveillance-brazil-germany-un-resolution

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Pearce:

    And even then, the comparison would be weak. The FBI was way worse.

    Back during the Bush regime, I got into a lot of arguments with regime supporters who’d excuse any atrocity by our side by pointing to a supposedly greater atrocity on the other side: “well, yeah, we’re torturing helpless prisoners but at least we’re not cutting off their heads! You can’t compare us!” or “well, we flattened Fallujah but we don’t knock down buildings with hijacked planes! We’re much better than that!”

    I thought it was a lazy, shallow, disingenuous argument then and I think it’s a lazy, shallow, disingenuous argument now. If the justification for your behavior is that you can find someone else who’s doing something even worse than you, than we’re back to the ethics of the kindergarten playground.

    We’re not supposed to be “not the worst” — we’re supposed to be better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    East Germans – and Merkel is one – were told different myths about Germany’s past than West Germans. And of course they tolerated surveillance leading to arrests and imprisonment on purely political grounds – something that is not happening here.

    I suppose if by tolerate you mean “not speak up so you yourself won’t be arrested and sent to prison”, then yeah.

    I thought from the start that Merkel was reaching for some phony moral equivalency. The NSA buying access off Verizon and using the data to hunt terrorists is not the same as the Stasi wiring your bedroom so they can catch you saying something critical about the government.

    The Stasi didn’t wire your bedroom so they could catch you saying something critical about the government. They wired your bedroom so they could catch Western saboteurs and terrorists and dangerous subversives inside East Germany who’d been recruited by the Western spies and might do the same to you, so they could catch enemies of the German people who were a threat to your family and to national security and our socialist revolution. It’s for your own good! Or at least that’s what they told themselves and the East Germans….

    Every surveillance state justifies what it does by an appeal to security. Every piece of spying is supposedly for our own good, and you’d surely understand, comrade, no, you’d sympathize, if only I could tell you of the terrible terrible dangers we face from our faceless enemies….but I, alas, cannot tell you, it would compromise our safety, so therefore I am the lonely guardian, the only thing keeping your family safe in bed at night….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. James Pearce says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If the justification for your behavior is that you can find someone else who’s doing something even worse than you, than we’re back to the ethics of the kindergarten playground.

    Just to clarify. I’m not justifying the NSA via Hoover. I have other justifications.

    What I’m saying is that if you’re thinking about which comparison to go with…Stasi or FBI….then FBI would fit better. The correct answer is that the NSA is like neither. It’s its own special beast.

    But we’re talking comparisons here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Pearce:

    What I’m saying is that if you’re thinking about which comparison to go with…Stasi or FBI….then FBI would fit better.

    Well, Chancellor Merkel as I noted has decades of real-life experience with what it’s like to be a victim of Stasi surveillance, and she thinks the Stasi is the correct comparison.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Rafer Janders says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Tell me edmondo…did you feel repressed when you watched porn on your phone last night?

    Speaking for myself, I did, yeah. Because in the back of my mind I always know that if the government ever switches and some ruthless GOP politician decides he doesn’t like what I’m saying, there’s always a chance that somehow or other my browser history might be leaked and my interest in, um, interpersonal group dynamics among sorority sisters who are experimenting with their sexuality might become public knowledge in order to mock me….

    I mean, c’mon, it’s not like we didn’t do the same thing to King and to the civil rights leaders.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. James Pearce says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    she thinks the Stasi is the correct comparison.

    Consider the context. Do you really think a comment blurted during a “confrontation” provides us such a clear window into her thinking?

    I think, in this case, the Stasi is the new Nazi, just some bad guy boogeyman thrown up by an opponent. The comparison works if you tilt it and look at it in the right light, just as how the gym teacher really was like a Nazi, but when you boil it down –which is the whole point of a comparison– it falls apart.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  25. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Pearce:

    I think, in this case, the Stasi is the new Nazi, just some bad guy boogeyman thrown up by an opponent. The comparison works if you tilt it and look at it in the right light, just as how the gym teacher really was like a Nazi, but when you boil it down –which is the whole point of a comparison– it falls apart.

    Again, with Merkel actually being a former East German who knows exactly what the Stasi were like, and with myself having had family members in that country who were spied on, I think I’ll trust the Germans who know the Stasi to make the comparison, rather than Americans with no firsthand knowledge.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. edmondo says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    @edmondo: I expect that you are trying to be clever here, but help me out.

    Obviously you haven’t been reading the comments section here very much. Only “racists” oppose anything Obama does. Go forward a few posts. You’ll see Michael Reynolds, our racist-catcher-in-chief in full drudgeon

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. @edmondo:

    Only “racists” oppose anything Obama does.

    Ah. That’s what I figured–trying to be clever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Pearce:

    Do you really think a comment blurted during a “confrontation” provides us such a clear window into her thinking?

    Do you think Angela Merkel just blurts things out?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Pearce:

    And even then, the comparison would be weak. The FBI was way worse.

    Also, too, Chancellor Merkel is a German living in Germany with first-hand experience of the Stasi and probably not much detailed knowledge of Hoover’s FBI. Why you’d expect her to reach for a 60 year old example from America rather than an example from her own German experience is a bit bizarre to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. rudderpedals says:

    Livid after learning from Der Spiegel magazine that the Americans were listening in to her personal mobile phone, Merkel confronted Obama with the accusation: “This is like the Stasi.”

    The newspaper also reported that Merkel was particularly angry that, based on the disclosures, “the NSA clearly couldn’t be trusted with private information, because they let Snowden clean them out.”

    It’s hard to imagine anyone happy with a foreign power tapping her phone, or the knowledge getting out. I’m going to go with righteous hyperbole. Countries spy on each other for good reasons, always have and always will.

    Re Snowden, dumping his ton of embarrassing info thus far could indeed remind her of the way the Stasi records dumps on the East’s collapse exposed its agents and methods.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @edmondo:

    Obviously you haven’t been reading the comments section here very much. Only “racists” oppose anything Obama does.

    No, it isn’t only racists who oppose Obama, however it is virtually certain that nearly all racists oppose anything Obama does.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  32. James Pearce says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I think I’ll trust the Germans who know the Stasi to make the comparison

    Would you be willing to do an ideological Turing test?

    If I were to concede that the NSA surveillance is in some respects like Stasi surveillance, would you be willing to list all the ways in which it is not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Mikey says:

    Has it occurred to anyone besides me that Frau Merkel was referring specifically to the tapping of her phone, not equating the NSA with the Stasi? The Stasi was found to have listened in on at least one Bundeskanzler (Helmut Kohl) and I don’t doubt they listened in on the others whenever they got the chance.

    I know some people want to draw the inference that someone who lived in East Germany and therefore knows all about this stuff said the NSA is basically the Stasi, but that’s not what she said at all. She doesn’t care about the NSA gathering Americans’ call records because the Bundesnachrichtendienst gathers Germans’ call records the same way.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0