Saturday, March 15, 2014

It's Not Paranoid If They're Really Out To Get You

I've recently been reading a couple of books, one about modern day Russia and the other is about political paranoia in the USA*. I was struck by the similarity between the actions of modern FSB- the rebranded KGB- and the COINTELPRO operations of the FBI in the 1970s that the two books described.

The FSB pracitice techniques developed by East Germany called Operational Psychology:
Mafia State recounts how the KGB first became interested in "operational psychology" in the 1960s. But it was the Stasi, East Germany's sinister secret police, that perfected these psychological techniques and used them extensively against dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s. These operations were given a name, Zersetzung – literally corrosion or undermining.

According to former Stasi officers the aim was to "switch off" regime opponents by disrupting their private or family lives. Tactics included removing pictures from walls, replacing one variety of tea with another, and even sending a vibrator to a target's wife. Usually victims had no idea the Stasi were responsible. Many thought they were going mad; some suffered breakdowns; a few killed themselves.

Meanwhile the FBI's programme to undermine peaceful opponents included tactics like this:

The special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego office had a plan. An antidraft activist in the area was convinced that the Bureau was watching him—he kept telling people that his phone was tapped, his home bugged, his every move observed. With “a small push in the right direction,” the agent believed, the activist would start exhibiting “obvious paranoid tendencies,” and that would “completely neutralize him in his several leadership capacities.”
So let’s make a big show of spying on the man, the investigator suggested. Maybe we could build a spooky-looking mechanism from a bicycle part and an old transistor radio, then drop it off near his front steps one night. “In the event he displayed the contraption to anyone,” the officer argued, “its crude construction would ultimately neutralize any allegation that it originated or is being utilized by the FBI.” And if the target tried to tell people it was a bugging device, they’d ridicule him.

The method used by both agencies was subtle, deniable harassment that over time could wreck someone's mental well being rather than outright thuggery. This isn't to make a facile point about the USA being no different to Russia but the important differences there are because of the strength of other institutions in reigning in the excesses of the security services and with the scale of the problem (Russia has about 20 times more FSB employees per capita than the USA has FBI agents). The difference was not in the mindset of the respective agencies themselves.

In the United States the courts, a free press and a pluralistic political system could eventually hold the FBI to account and bring it back within the norms of legal behaviour. In Russia there is no such constraints on the FSB which therefore has expanded to essentially control the country.

* The books are "The United States of Paranoia" by Jesse Walker and "Mafia State" by Luke Harding.

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