BERLIN -- Wolfgang Schmidt was seated in Berlins 1,200-foot-high TV tower, one of the few remaining landmarks left from the former East Germany. Peering out over the city that lived in fear when the communist party ruled it, he pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face.
You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true, he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist countrys secret police, the Stasi.
In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.
So much information, on so many people, he said.
East Germanys Stasi has long been considered the standard of police state surveillance during the Cold War years, a monitoring regime so vile and so intrusive that agents even noted when their subjects were overheard engaging in sexual intercourse. Against that backdrop, Germans have greeted with disappointment, verging on anger, the news that somewhere in a U.S. government databank are the records of where millions of people were when they made phone calls or what video content they streamed on their computers in the privacy of their homes.
Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.
It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information wont be used, he said. This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the peoples privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.
U.S. officials have defended the government collection of information since word of it broke in newspaper stories based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The records are used only to track down terrorists overseas, officials say. The collection has been carefully vetted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a body of U.S. judges whose actions are largely kept secret. There is no misuse.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, tried to provide an out for President Barack Obama, offering as a possible explanation for the sweeping nature of the U.S. collection efforts that the Internet is new to all of us. She was roundly mocked for that statement, and her administration appeared far less forgiving more recently, when similar spying charges were leveled against the British government.
Germans are dismayed at Obamas role in allowing the collection of so much information. Before his presidency, hundreds of thousands of Germans turned out to hear him speak in Berlin. During a visit last week, the setup was engineered to avoid criticism: Obama spoke to a small, handpicked audience, many from the German-American school. Access to the Brandenburg Gate, the backdrop for his speech, was severely limited, as was access to Berlins entire downtown.