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Revealing Secrets

Nineteen years ago, nearly three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German dissidents called for a peaceful demonstration against the continued existence of the Stasi, the feared East German secret police. On January 15, 1990, I found myself in front of Stasi headquarters in East Berlin translating the demonstrators' slogans for an American photographer. Suddenly, without warning, the looming metal gates of the forbidding edifice swung open and stunned protesters poured into the building. Some opened bottles of imported orange juice in the Stasi kitchens, while others spray-painted the walls and vented their anger on furniture and equipment.

This unplanned and now legendary "storming of the Stasi" came to mark the symbolic end of an institution whose fate had already been sealed politically. In the ensuing months, East Germans would dismantle the secret police apparatus once and for all, laying bare the full scope of repression exercised by an intelligence service subject to no external control. As a new administration takes over now in the United States, we might take to heart the lessons learned, in this process of dealing with the Stasi's legacy, about the crucial role of openness and oversight in democratic societies.

East German activists soon discovered that the Stasi had kept literally miles of reports on ordinary people. I was one of them. As an American living in West Berlin, I had befriended dissident environmentalists in the eastern half of the city and helped them publicize the sorry state of their country's air and water--an activity prohibited under the communist dictatorship. This made me an object of interest.

Within a year of the Stasi storming, a government agency had been formed to evaluate the files. At the insistence of former East German dissidents, victims, as well as historians and journalists, gained unprecedented access. Soon I received a partial set of documents the Stasi had compiled about me in the waning years of the Cold War. Inspired by this opportunity, I encouraged my father, who had come to the United States after World War II, to apply under the Freedom of Information Act for his own US government files from the early Cold War years; five years later he received several thick envelopes of documents from the FBI and military intelligence. To my surprise, our files, separated by a generation, an ocean, and an ideology, were not as different as I had expected.

My files consisted largely of information passed on to the Stasi by a single informer, a "friend" active in the East German environmental movement. It was often wrong. One report suggested that I must be working for an enemy secret service, as I had no apparent means of financial support and took notes in "code." (In fact, I was living on a shoestring, and the "code" was abbreviated English). This clearly made sense to the Stasi. What other reason, besides spying, could an American possibly have to visit the workers' paradise? I had been close to the informer and his wife, and his reports included disturbingly intimate details, gleaned from private conversations and sometimes incorrectly interpreted. Because the Stasi files law aimed to achieve maximum transparency, very little was redacted. This allowed me, like many East Germans, both to confront the person who betrayed me (sadly, he was unrepentant) and to understand some of the mechanisms by which the Stasi had held an entire society in thrall.

My father had also drawn attention to himself through political activities in Germany. Victor Cooper, now deceased, was a Polish-born survivor of German concentration camps who had organized refugees and participated in de-Nazification efforts in Bavaria after the war. This work caused him to run afoul of former Nazis who were being rehabilitated with the start of the Cold War. He arrived in the United States in 1949--not the best time for refugees, with McCarthyism in its early stages and prejudice against Eastern European Jews rife.

While the East Germans were sure I was a CIA agent, the U.S. government's informers in Germany claimed that my father (who had once been a member of a Jewish socialist organization, but had always opposed communism) had been the leader of a Russian-Polish espionage ring. Large sections of the reports, some of which were addressed directly to J. Edgar Hoover, had been blacked out by U.S. government censors, making it impossible, 50 years after the fact, to determine the source of much of the information. What was visible was as ludicrous as it was unnerving. Victor was identified in one place as "Moslem"--possibly a mistranslation of the German term "Mosaic," sometimes used instead of "Jewish"--but also described, in stereotypically anti-Semitic terms, as stooped and hook-nosed (he was neither). There were dark hints of supposed criminal activity.

As in my files, many of the details were wrong (in my case, at least, I really had been helping dissidents; my father had done nothing that could be considered subversive). In places, it seemed likely that personal grudges played a role. Nevertheless, some of his mail was traced and his application for citizenship delayed. Fortunately, he had worked with American military officials in Germany who could vouch for him, and when government agents got around to interviewing him in mid-1950, they closed the investigation. Still, during the Vietnam War, which he opposed, he was audited by the IRS several years in a row. The entire experience left him anxious and distrustful of his government.

I like to joke that our family's had quite a checkered political history, bouncing between CIA and KGB--if only in the imaginations of various spy agencies--and keeping informers busy. But it's not really funny. Intelligence agencies, always eager to expand their information base, are especially likely to scrutinize behaviors that deviate from the norm--even behaviors that healthy societies need, such as political activism. In times of particular tension (then the Cold War, now the fight against terrorism), expansive national security arguments give them increased power to collect still more private information, sometimes from informers of dubious knowledge and honesty. As we've seen since 9/11, this information can be used against the innocent as well as the guilty. If left unmonitored, such targeting not only has the potential to harm individuals; it also diverts time and resources from real threats.

To be sure, intelligence agencies play a crucial role in protecting our security. While 9/11 exposed the weaknesses of these agencies, few would advocate abolishing them. Certainly mistakes are inevitable, and innocent people are bound to be targeted on occasion. This does not mean the FBI or CIA is comparable to the Stasi, which was far more brutal and all-encompassing, reaching into all corners of East German society. But what we know of our own agencies' behavior during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, along with ongoing revelations of more recent Bush Administration abuses--including spying on environmental, peace and animal rights groups--suggests that the differences between the Stasi and our own intelligence services are more a matter of degree than of kind.

In democracy as in dictatorship, an intelligence gathering institution's interests are inherently at odds with individual rights. The major difference between secret services thus ultimately lies in their accountability to instruments of democratic control. East Germany's former dissidents understood this when they pushed through the country's expansive files law. The incoming administration would do well to ensure that US citizens have similarly full and timely access to the information their government has collected on them. The Freedom of Information Act, which grants citizens a broad right of access to government documents, has been undermined in recent years by the Bush Administration's embrace of secrecy over transparency. The new administration should act quickly to restore the effectiveness of this crucial tool of democratic oversight. Only in this way can we truly ensure that we control our intelligence services and are not, like East Germany, controlled by them.

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