Saturday, February 9, 2008

There's a reason the East Germans needed a name for it--but why do we?

Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter. Knock back a couple of shots of schnapps, say it in a whisper while hiding in a room with the blinds drawn, and you can hear its English cognates: unofficial, working with.

It amazes me--saddens me, alarms me--to realize how many people think that "America" refers only to the real estate with that name on it on the maps. The idea that the word refers to a set of political and moral standards that once defined us and made us the envy--rather than the terror--of the rest of the world has apparently eluded them.

The most obvious example I could point to--at least this week--would be our government's now-open embrace of torture as tool in foreign relations. (It makes me almost sentimental for a couple of weeks ago, when they still at least felt the need to deny it publicly.)

But there's another case all too much in point.

With the end of the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) in 1990, taking with it the Stasi secret police and its burgeoning network of private informers (the Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter), you'd expect to read passages like this only in the history books:

FBI Director Robert Mueller addressed an InfraGard convention on August 9, 2005. At that time, the group had less than half as many members as it does today. "To date, there are more than 11,000 members of InfraGard," he said. "From our perspective that amounts to 11,000 contacts . . . and 11,000 partners in our mission to protect America." He added a little later, "Those of you in the private sector are the first line of defense."

He urged InfraGard members to contact the FBI if they "note suspicious activity or an unusual event." And he said they could sic the FBI on "disgruntled employees who will use knowledge gained on the job against their employers." [...]

InfraGard is not readily accessible to the general public. Its communications with the FBI and Homeland Security are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act under the "trade secrets" exemption, its website says. [...]

Schneck is proud of the relationships the InfraGard Members Alliance has built with the FBI. "If you had to call 1-800-FBI, you probably wouldn't bother," she says. "But if you knew Joe from a local meeting you had with him over a donut, you might call them. Either to give or to get. We want everyone to have a little black book."

This black book may come in handy in times of an emergency. "On the back of each membership card," Schneck says, "we have all the numbers you'd need: for Homeland Security, for the FBI, for the cyber center. And by calling up as an InfraGard member, you will be listened to." She also says that members would have an easier time obtaining a "special telecommunications card that will enable your call to go through when others will not." [...]

This business owner says he attended a small InfraGard meeting where agents of the FBI and Homeland Security discussed in astonishing detail what InfraGard members may be called upon to do.

"The meeting started off innocuously enough, with the speakers talking about corporate espionage," he says. "From there, it just progressed. All of a sudden we were knee deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared. We were expected to share all our resources, but in return we'd be given specific benefits." These included, he says, the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out. But that's not all.

"Then they said when -- not if -- martial law is declared, it was our responsibility to protect our portion of the infrastructure, and if we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn't be prosecuted," he says. […]

Curt Haugen is CEO of S'Curo Group, a company that does "strategic planning, business continuity planning and disaster recovery, physical and IT security, policy development, internal control, personnel selection, and travel safety," according to its website. Haugen tells me he is a former FBI agent and that he has been an InfraGard member for many years. He is a huge booster. "It's the only true organization where there is the public-private partnership," he says. "It's all who knows who. You know a face, you trust a face. That's what makes it work."

He says InfraGard "absolutely" does emergency preparedness exercises. When I ask about discussions the FBI and Homeland Security have had with InfraGard members about their use of lethal force, he says: "That much I cannot comment on. But as a private citizen, you have the right to use force if you feel threatened."

"We were assured that if we were forced to kill someone to protect our infrastructure, there would be no repercussions," the whistleblower says.

Read the whole thing, if you can stomach it. "It's all who knows who," indeed.

If a presidential candidate promised to shut this unholy alliance down by 12:15pm Eastern time, January 20, 2009, I'd vote for them no matter how many other planks in their platform I disagreed with. But none of them will, and the sad truth is this: Once something like this gets started, it's much harder to kill it than simply to (deliberately or inadvertently) drive it a little farther underground.

Recall the formation (animated by much the same "let's pitch in" spirit) that created the current abortive "don't fly" list used by Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, imagine that multiplied a thousand-fold to include anyone who someone else thinks is a workplace "troublemaker," and now imagine the harm to innocent individuals--including the near impossibility of getting a name off that list once it's been wrongly put there.

(Hat tip to Digby. Image sources: Stasi emblem and Stasi archives.)

No comments: