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23 January 2008

Monuments out of shredded papers

The history of domestic intelligence has long been a sordid one. It is all too often the first tool authoritarian regimes turn to in order to oppress a captive populace – and as a result in such cases rapidly devolves into an activity which is both soul destroying and at the same time farcical. The German STASI apparat was the very exemplar of such evil.

Wired magazine this month profiles the activities of those seeking to reconstruct the records of the STASI's dark days.
The former Soviet bloc archives are of immense value in understanding the scope – and the banality – to which intelligence as an activity and organization became perverted under the Communist system. These same lessons will no doubt be seen repeated in the archives of totalitarian governments around the world in years to come, though few bureaucracies match the Teutonic obsession with documentation. Such obsession became the organization’s downfall, given the immense logistical challenges in destroying the voluminous files that are now fodder for historians and former victims alike. It is a document exploitation challenge of simply unprecedented scope and scale, and the reconstruction of partially destroyed documents has spawned new and innovative approaches in digitization and image matching that would no doubt make for fascinating academic discussion among other practitioners of similar arts.

If you the reader ever happen to find yourself in Berlin, it is well worth stopping by the former Headquarters, now turned into a museum and archive. It is a monument to the waste and stupidity that comes from an intelligence system turned against its own people – and a constant reminder of the kind of evil that was wrought.

The STASI legacy has tainted subsequent generations of intelligence far removed from the same evils, but also serves as an instructive sort of anti-model of actions – and more importantly – an underlying intent, one that must be avoided by ethical professionals at all costs. Thankfully, the impulses that drove the STASI are quite alien to those which have developed in the American intelligence tradition – and we hope that this will remain so as long as the profession endures in an apolitical and accountable form.

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