NSA as Big Brother? Not even close

NEW YORK —

When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the U.S. National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and government programs pulling in emails and photographs from internet businesses, suddenly “George Orwell” was leading the news.

The British essayist predicted it all, commentators asserted, and the United States now seems straight out of 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future. “Big Brother” had arrived.

This is ridiculous.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden might claim that America is under the Big Brother’s glare, but he does not understand what this really means. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I knew Big Brother. This is not even close.

In 1982, for example, when I was in high school in Moscow, I was on the phone with one of my closest friends, talking about how relieved we were that Leonid Brezhnev had finally died, after 18 years of stifling power. Suddenly, there was a metallic click on the line and we heard a dour man’s voice. A KGB functionary, no doubt. “Hang up the phone,” he demanded, “immediately.”

We did.

I dare anyone to tell me that this has happened to you in the United States.

Both supporters and critics of this sweeping NSA surveillance are passionate in their arguments. Advocates insist that the NSA’s metadata gathering is a legitimate use of state power, because all three branches of government have signed off on the program, and it keeps the country safe. Critics assert this is what Big Brother is all about, manipulating the rule of law for the benefit of the few at the top. Their spying doesn’t protect the nation but helps maintain their grip on power.

But when Orwell wrote his novel in 1948, he was not warning against the NSA which was actually created four years later in order to break enemy codes in defense of American values of freedom. Orwell’s Big Brother, in the nation of Oceania in 1984, was about Nazi Germany’s Gestapo or Joseph Stalin’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB), dictatorial outfits that surrender to the views of just one man.

Under those despotic regimes, the public was manipulated and harsh punishments against “thought crime” and free will were rationalized as necessary for public good.

In the Soviet Union, writers were sent to the gulag for the critical thoughts of their fictional characters. At school, we had to start every paper praising the Communist Party. If you began with your own thoughts, you were guaranteed an “F” - no college, no job, no nothing. Beat that!

Only those who read Orwell, but have never lived in the world he portrayed, could view President Barack Obama’s justifications - that data gathering is necessary to identify “potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism” - as a standard government trick to deflate fears about violations of Americans’ privacy rights.

In fact, the recent Senate hearings about Internet surveillance and the White House’s explanation that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls” demonstrate efforts for transparency that no dictatorial regime would ever make.

Obama has said that he welcomes debates about the balance between spying and security. In my early life in the Soviet Union, any conversation critical of the state had to be held on a balcony or in a cramped bathroom with the water running. To most Americans, it would have looked as if we were enacting a scene from a John le Carré novel. Even thinking about my privacy rights was an Orwellian “thought crime.”

The American public is prudent to ask questions about the NSA program. Not in vain, President Ronald Reagan used to warn his Cold War rival about the need to “trust but verify.”

Yet comparing the United States to dystopian Oceania only shows how lucky today’s democracies are. They can debate about “Big Brother” who then has to explain himself to citizens. Obama is the first U.S. president to publicly admit his government is overseeing the electronic life of its citizens. Even this concession riled his constant bête noire, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In a recent interview on Fox News, Cheney, his newly transplanted heart as hardened as ever, insisted that leadership decisions should never be explained and that Obama is wrong to justify the NSA program because it would only harm the cause. The public is warned but so is the enemy. So, Cheney’s reasoning would seem to suggest, who cares about the public?

It was under President George W Bush, and Cheney, that the United States began to copy - in form, if not in substance - aspects of Soviet behavior, such as deploying Orwellian newspeak to validate preventative wars.

Cheney resolutely insisted in 2005 that “waterboarding is not torture but a good program” because it was used against the enemies of the people. In 2006, he firmly denied that the government was spying on Americans on U.S. soil, saying there was no “domestic surveillance program.”

Not that the Obama administration has been fully open on this issue. When National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified about NSA data collection at a March 2011 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, he said it was, “Not wittingly.”

Still, few leaders in a democracy reject the public’s right to question them. This was not the prevailing attitude I experienced growing up in propaganda-saturated Moscow. I know these dictatorial ways in my bones, more so than most Soviets, since Nikita S Khrushchev, the Soviet premier who succeeded Stalin and preceded Brezhnev, was my great-grandfather.

Generations of Soviet rulers, Khrushchev included, had systemized propaganda into a central element of the state. Their pompous posters and statues were a costume of a totalitarian society where all decisions were handed top-down and the silent public was excluded from any participation in the political process.

The closest thing I ever experienced to that here in the United States was Cheney’s post-September 11 talk of
“overwhelming” facts in pressing for an implausible connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. It was a blast from the Brezhnev-era past. For it was eerily familiar to Orwell’s 1984 slogan, “War is Peace, Freedom Slavery, Ignorance Strength.”

In addition, when information was proven false, as it was with the pretense to invade Iraq in 2003, there was no regret or remorse on the part of the all-knowing leader.

Cheney was a marvel of democracy, a black orchid, whose autocratic behavior was fit for a marble statue, even of a city or state dedication - Cheinograd, Cheinistan. In another country - Oceania, the Soviet Union or even the current Russia, where elections look like just a scheme to prolong Vladimir Putin’s presidency - someone like Cheney would have stayed on beyond his constitutional term, stifling public debate and insisting on government’s supremacy.

A hypothetical scenario, but worthy of consideration, particularly for Snowden in his quest for the “truth.” He fled the United States, a country with functional, if imperfect, checks and balances, for places - China, Russia, Ecuador - that unabashedly observe a one-man rule, hamper freedom of speech and ignore government accountability.

Take it from a former Soviet: secret defense programs don’t necessarily violate privacy or rights, and the capabilities to spy are always there in any country and at any time. It’s their application and the people’s ability to separate democracy from dictatorship that makes all the difference. 

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.

Author Infomation

Nina Krushcheva
Nina Krushcheva
Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at the New School University in New York City. She is the author of "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics." She is the great-granddaughter of Nikita S Khrushchev)
  • 1

    sourpuss

    I agree with this woman. If you have studied about the Soviet Union and Stalin, you will know that Obama's NSA is hardly the Orwellian nightmare the tinfoil-hat army wants to make it out to be.

    "But I can't trust my computer now!"

    Could you ever? Lol

  • 2

    badsey3

    The Stasi of East Germany was far worse.

    Why would Homeland Security hire former Stasi chief Markus Wolfe and former head of the KGB General Yevgeni Primakov? Is this part of the Bush anti-terror strategy? After all, Wolfe is the man who is credited with building up the feared East German secret police that was responsible for the disappearance and deaths of thousands of citizens. And, Primakov's record is not any better. As skipper of the KGB he was driving force behind the machinery of state terror; a legacy that still has a chilling affect on many Russians.

    The USA is basically the Legion of Doom with Obama as Lex Luther. Add Cheney to the mix since he has an arrest warrant from Nigeria

  • 2

    Kazuaki Shimazaki

    So, this article argues we should not be vigilant against governmental attempts to bring us closer to the Soviet state?

    Another is that at least you knew the score in the USSR. As for Americans, they are stunned.

  • 1

    gaijinfo

    One thing about governments, and people, is that they learn from the mistakes of previous ones.

    I might suggest that the NSA is fully aware of the "mistakes" of soviet privacy invasions, and is simply doing them one better.

    However, it's not really the NSA, it's more their private contractors who do more than 60% of their spying. Naturally, these private contractors are using every angle they can to fatten their piece of the crony capitalist pie.

    Bit different scenario than old Russia.

  • 4

    tkoind2

    Granted the Soviet and other systems were far more like Big Brother than the NSA. But then again that is like saying a one form of cancer is any more desirable than another.

    When governments start down this path, there is a risk to liberty. And that risk must be addressed and resisted. It does not matter that the level of risk is not yet at Stasi level. What matters is that this is yet another step towards that sort of behavior and should be resisted vigilantly by champions of liberty and privacy.

    If we are complacent today, then we could one day wake up in a world where the NSA is the new Stasi and people like Cheney do end up with cities named after them. The difference between that happening and not, is the protection of our liberty in these early days of having it violated.

    Ignoring or diminishing the violation plays into the hands of repression. Take that from a former activist who has seen and been on the pointed end of the stick when supporting causes that were not popular during the closing days of the cold war.

  • 2

    Lowly

    Be ready for the disinformation tsunami... (modern day pr and spin), "NSA? Why how could they do anything bad? Because, after all they are good." "NSA? But, heavens, they're not the same as NAZIS"...How do we know whose payroll this lady is really on.

    No, but seriously, she makes some good points, and it is a good story, but she lost me on her main point with,

    I dare anyone to tell me that this has happened to you in the United States.

    THE WHOLE POINT is we don't want that starting to happen, that's why we want to keep these guys out of our pcs. Getting into our phone conversations is so analog-era, anyways. What the real danger is, a file being amassed on you, and then when you are an "inconvenient" little prole, they can trump any charge they want up on you and disappear you, or more insidiously, leak such info to employers etc. And that is what we are looking at, if not today, then in 10 or 20 yrs, if we're not careful.

  • 6

    Chris Case

    As the frog in the pot that had just been put on the stove said, "What's the worry? It's just pleasantly warm."

  • 1

    Fingertarian

    This article is ridiculous. The moral of the story here is to sit down and shut up until it's too late. Learn your history. The steps to totalitarianism are always incremental. This article is like telling someone who got shot in the shoulder to quit whining because getting shot in the knee cap hurts more.

  • 2

    CrisGerSan

    This is a ridiculous article of misled opinion in more ways than I can count. It claims that the US extensive violations of rights of privacy and free communication are insignificant largely as they are trivial compared to the massive violations of the Soviet State at the height of its dominance in Russia. There is no basis for comparison and the use of that justificaiton is absurd. Yes, it is certainly historically true that in Russia even today, individual rights are almost none existant. Russia has a long way to go before it is a true Democracy. But the United States was founded in 1776 AS a republican Democracy and individual rights and freedoms were a cornerstone of that original vision and Governmental design. Over the centuries those rights and freedoms have been seriously eroded. Now, we see the most massive revelation of that erosion revealed by the heroic efforts of one brave man of integrity.

    To say that these violations dont really amount to much when compared to one of the worst dictatorships in history, ie communist Russia is laughably absurd. It is like saying that Hitler wasnt really much of a crazy dictator because he paled in comparison to Atilla the Hun who killed far more people despotically. In our case, in the US, we are shocked and appalled but not that surprised considering the massive invasion of indivdual rights that the Obama Adminstration has created over the past years, using Executive orders in the form of imperial decrees bypassing and subverting the Congress and the Courts over and over. It is all part of a massive new form of socialism that masquerades as liberal democracy.

    Let is be clear, Ms K, your article is not worthy of belief for your basic premise is lacking in any form of substance. I am sorry to see this published here, or anywhere. It wont help us deal with a serious crisis and it wont help hide the NSA and Obama's conniving to attack individual freedom and rights to privacy that have impacted not only US citizens but people world wide.

  • -1

    Kent Mcgraw

    After 1/2 paragraph I knew this was a ridiculous article and as it comes from the New York Times one could not expect anything but the ridiculous. It is propaganda aimed at making Americans feel safe with the NSA and the NSA is not that bad. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear they say and that is the same thing told to people by Hitler and Stalin. The truth is that you must hide everything as even words such as "freedom" are flagged as offensive, oops this post may be deleted, I said freedom. The fact is that if you give the devil an inch he will take a mile and these unthinking people who never knew freedom need not say a word. She grew up in Russia and did not know freedom, she went to the United States and thinks she is free. I grew up in the United States and only have 1/4 the freedom that I had when I was growing up. They chip away at freedom until it is gone. Just one little thing and then another little thing and soon the whole thing is gone.

  • 2

    kwatt

    If you are against NSA whatever, you would be a traitor and a criminal. That's America now. Freedom is surveillance.

  • -1

    praack

    SO in essence the writer is true- i have no one i KNOW is listening to my phone, however the option is there. in writing to my congressman and representative i received platitudes that they would listen to the information given to them- but not that any action would be taken.

    the notes back both had patriotic messages about the need to balance privacy and safety- yet we have so moved past the bar - when the result for safety was so low.

    but as for Mr snowden- to become a traitor because he told us there was a program? just to utter the word Prism , just to state the sweep for information took place- just to mention the secret court existed-

    how is that not like Orwellian society?

  • 1

    hagent

    Who is John Galt?

  • 1

    gaijinfo

    Who is John Galt?

    Resistance is futile...

  • 0

    FizzBit

    I guess Kwatt, some people are just too quick with the thumbs down. I got it. Very funny play on Orwell.

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