Sunday, 29 July 2018

Thoughts from Berlin on the Stasi and the TSA

Most of the writing I’ve published during the last couple of months has been on the Web site of the Identity Project (

I don’t usually repost those articles here, but today’s includes more than most about my recent travels.

Some excerpts (full article here):

Jana Winter has a detailed investigative report on the front page of today’s Boston Globe about a previously secret TSA program of illegal surveillance of innocent air travellers, “Quiet Skies”.

According to the story in the Globe, based in part on descriptions and documents apparently leaked by dissident Federal Air Marshals, the “Quiet Skies” program selects certain airline passengers, who aren’t on any blacklist (“watchlist”) or under investigation for any crime, on the basis of algorithmic profiling, countries previously visited (merely traveling to Turkey has been enough to get some people selected), phone numbers or email addresses, and/or other factors in DHS files about them.

A team of FAMs is assigned to follow each targeted traveller from the time they arrive at their airport of origin (which the TSA knows from its access to airline reservations through the Secure Flight program), onto and on the plane, through any connecting airports, and until the unwitting target of their surveillance leaves the airport at their final destination.

The FAM gumshoes are required to file detailed reports on each traveller they are assigned to stalk, including a checklist of details such as whether the person being tailed used the toilet in the airport or on the plane, whether they slept for most of the flight or only briefly, and whether they had “strong body odor” or engaged in “excessive fidgeting.”

Is this the reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the (re)emergence of an American Stasi, or standard operating procedure for a government that regards travel as inherently suspicious, rather than as the exercise of human and Constitutional rights?

All of the above, unfortunately.

The story in the Globe speaks for itself, and is worth reading in full.

But lest it be misunderstood, here are some key points about what today’s news reveals, what’s new and what isn’t, and why it’s significant:…

Until now, there has been no Edward Snowden from within the TSA or DHS, despite the numbers of people involved in travel surveillance and control.

Thousands of Federal Air Marshals have been ordered to inform on anyone they overhear saying anything suspicious on an airplane. Tens of thousands of TSA employees and contractors, and a similar order of magnitude of CBP staff, have been ordered to carry out suspicionless searches and profiling of travellers. An unknown number of programmers, at a cost of billions of dollars, have coded the DHS into the ecosystem of airline reservation data, giving the DHS root access to reservation data and positive control of boarding-pass issuance. An unknown number of “analysts” at the “National Targeting Center” and in airports in the US and around the world spend their days reviewing secret dossiers about innocent travellers and deciding, on the basis of secret criteria, which of them to allow to board which flights.

Until now, none of these people has spoken out against being ordered to spy on travellers or to control who is and who isn’t allowed to travel where….

I’m writing this on a peaceful sunny Sunday morning in Berlin, in a pleasant modern hotel a few blocks east of the former course of the Berlin Wall. I’ve spent the last several weeks in the former DDR and neighboring former members of the Warsaw Pact. I’ve been talking with people I meet, visiting museums and memorials, and reading translations of local writing about the legacy of the former secret police of those countries.

Today, the Stasi isn’t bugging my East Berlin hotel room, and local people can talk with me, a foreigner, without fear that they will be called in for questioning about what we talked about or that someone who overhears our conversation will inform on them to the secret police, with subsequent adverse effects on their ability to get permission to work or travel.

But the DHS has all the details of my airline reservations home to the USA, even though I’m flying on a foreign airline by way of a third country. And data such as what phone number or email address are reported to the DHS by the airline, on this or any previous trip, could cause me to be shadowed and reported on by Federal agents, or for airlines not to receive DHS permission to transport me. Just as nobody could travel from the DDR to the West without permission from the Stasi, granted or denied on the basis of a secret dossier maintained about each individual, nobody today can leave or return to the US by air without permission from the DHS, granted or denied on the basis of a similarly secret dossier and subject to no statutory standards and, to date, to no judicial review.

East Berliners no longer have to apply to the Stasi for permission to cross to West Berlin or to travel abroad. But each US or foreign citizen who wants to travel by air to, from, or within the USA has to get permission from the DHS before the airline is allowed to issue their boarding pass. And there are DHS “advisors” permanently assigned to sit behind the scenes in German airports, making “recommendations” to German authorities, on the basis of secret DHS dossiers and secret DHS algorithms, of who those German authorities should — and should not — allow to board flights from Germany.

There are places of remembrance in Berlin and elsewhere dedicated to preserving the memory of what was wrong with the Stasi and its counterparts in neighboring countries, that their evils neither be forgotten nor be repeated. But we have nothing like that in the USA, much less a monument on the Mall in Washington to the victims of COINTELPRO — an FBI program for surveillance and suppression of dissent that was exposed only by illegal direct action, not by any mechanism for self-correction within the government.

We hope that the latest expose on the “Quiet Skies” program will be seen not as evidence of an aberration or an excess that should be “corrected” or an agency that should be “reigned in”, but as further evidence of the fundamental character of the TSA as a lawless agency dedicated in practice, notwithstanding its rhetoric of “security”, to surveillance and control of the movements of US citizens and foreigners alike.

The TSA can no more be “reformed” than could the Stasi. Nor can many other DHS components. We look forward to the day when they are abolished. Then their archives can be thrown open to the public, as those of the Stasi have been, to serve as a library of techniques of government surveillance and control against which we must be vigilant.

In the meantime, the secret police should be mocked, shamed, denounced, exposed, and defied both by those who are asked to submit to, and those who are asked to become perpetrators of, their evils.

We commend each of the Federal Air Marshals whose leaks contributed to the report in the Globe today. We celebrate their whistleblowing, and hope it will be emulated by others throughout the DHS.

And we hope that more people will say, “No,” to the entire police-state enterprise of government surveillance and control of travel of which “Quiet Skies” is just a small part.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 29 July 2018, 08:28 ( 8:28 AM)
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