Vital Signs

Covert Policing in Modern America

When the former communist bloc disintegrated, the opening of secret police files in several European countries demonstrated the incredibly thorough hold that the clandestine state had possessed over ordinary citizens. In East Germany, for example, State Security (Stasi) files revealed the existence of vast networks of control and surveillance in any area of life that might have produced dissidence or anti-state activity. The whole society, it seemed, had been founded on a culture of mutual suspicion and denunciation, which overwhelmed any existing bonds of family or friendship. For Westerners, the exposure of the Stasi files has enhanced still further our post-1989 triumphalism, the sense that the Cold War was indeed a moral confrontation on the lines long presented by hawks and Reaganites, and earlier attempts to argue for a "moral equivalence" between East and West have become wildly unfashionable. Already, there is an emerging postcommunist literature comparable to earlier works on fascism, studying the pervasive moral corruption of totalitarian states.

The United States does not have a Stasi, and comparisons may seem inappropriate. However, the last three decades have witnessed quite dramatic changes in the practices of law enforcement in this country, especially at the federal level, all of which tend toward an unhealthy and undemocratic emphasis on covert policing, with all that implies in...

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