By Patricia H Kushlis
Years ago when I was educational exchanges officer in the Cultural Section of the US Embassy in Moscow, the KGB routinely bugged our apartments as well as the Embassy. We were also surrounded by a phalanx of KGB operatives who “worked for us” in the Embassy’s non-classified sections. Excluding the drivers, I found their presence rarely helpful except when I wanted the KGB to know about some untoward action of their making that was thwarting the life and work of an American exchange student, researcher or professor – to get them to call off their dogs so to speak. This tactic, by the way, often worked. Sometimes in surprising ways.
In addition, I had a Russian housekeeper hired through UPEDIKA, the KGB department established to handle foreign embassy employee “special needs.” She was an excellent cook and incredibly protective of my blond, blue-eyed toddler who she referred to as her “zolotoy malchik” (golden boy). This was during the Cold War after Brezhnev had suffered a stroke but was not yet gone from this world and all the while Moscow Central was attempting to cope with more resident foreigners from capitalist countries than before 1917.
What, then, is an overwhelmed spying operation with limited resources supposed to do?
I decided early on that I didn’t care what the KGB’s minions heard and reported – or didn’t. I seldom read classified materials – didn’t need to, didn’t want to. Besides the fishbowl atmosphere wasn’t all that different from my youth in McCloud, a small company-owned town in California’s far north.
Basically, I thought that the Soviet eaves droppers were foremost wasting their time and energy on me - especially when subjected to my seemingly interminable tussles with my pre-school aged son – although there were times when our verbal interchanges - so to speak - might have enriched Russian foreign language vocabularies depending on what kind of English they had been taught at school.
The walls had ears - sometimes they responded too
Occasionally I would also talk to the walls. No I was not paranoid. When the trash in the halls had not been picked up for days, the best way to find it disappeared was to grouse loudly to the ceiling next to our apartment entrance. Poof – the trash would suddenly vanish. Today, however, my walls are deaf – apparently my cell phone and Internet connection have reportedly gone live but, frankly, the NSA’s just not as helpful as the KGB was. Data overload perhaps? The least the NSA could do is to send out the trash collectors, leaf rakers or repair men when I complain.
One spring afternoon in 1980 near the end of my Moscow assignment, I saw three well-dressed Russians emerge from our apartment house’s stairwell – two men in business suits and a bleached blonde in a stylish pale blue outfit that had clearly been designed and made in the West. They were carrying oversized shopping bags and cases with what I presumed brimmed over with reel-upon-reel of tapes. Their next destination was anyone’s guess – whether to deliver the reels to a transcribers’ office somewhere in the bowels of Lublyanka or simply to have the tapes tossed on to what I imagined to be an ever growing Payatas-sized dump in some cavernous underground warehouse of mostly forever unlistened to conversations.
I never thought the Soviet system could handle the volume of tapes of foreigners’ exasperated nannies attempting to cope with pent-up kids. Or me bitching about the lack of basic edible products available even in the hard currency stores or having to pay the black market ruble equivalent of $10 for a single cucumber at the “rynok” or farmers’ market, before New Year’s.
Meanwhile, that ever present threat of KGB surveillance did nothing to endear me to the strangest place I had ever lived even though I was never was convinced that the KGB found me at all interesting.
Simply because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be
Now it seems the shoe is on the other foot and it’s quite clear that our run-amok National Security Agency is in need of as much, if not more, adult supervision than the Kremlin's spies.
This time around our very own over-funded electronic snooping agency is likely scooping up and storing somewhere my conversations with my son who works for the private sector in London. This regardless of the fact that we are both US citizens and have previously held US security clearances as former US government employees. Note employees, not contractors.
What exactly does the NSA think it’s going to learn from collecting and storing such familial exchanges just because it can? Yes, I think this agency’s wholesale surveillance is counterproductive (Nicholas Kristof said it best in Thursday’s New York Times), questionably legal and at the very least needs a choke chain and a much shortened leash. Hello out there, just follow WhirledView if you want to know what I really think. You don't need to eavesdrop.
And simply because the NSA has the technology to do so? What a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. No wonder we supposedly don’t have enough to cover food stamps for the poor- let alone publically supported health insurance - at least according to the Republicans. Please, an increase of the NSA budget (to more than $10 billion per year - according to the New York Times) should never have happened and needs a major roll back. The agency’s behavior reminds me of the proverbial kid in a candy store whose over indulgent parent doesn’t know when to call halt.
Meanwhile, this country would be far better off once again with well trained and experienced diplomats working outside their fortress embassies talking to people and experiencing the local scene first hand. This, by the way, should include formal and informal meetings with foreign leaders and officials. It means putting what is learned into context for the officials in Washington who make the policies.
Just because our spy operations have had too much money thrust upon them to break into potential terrorist operations to forestall another 9/11 doesn’t mean their capabilities should be used to eavesdrop willy-nilly. Besides, I haven’t noticed that they’ve been particularly effective at their primary task. Remember the Boston Marathon bombing just last April for instance?
Yet since NSA activities are secret how can their effectiveness be measured? No I don’t think secret Congressional oversight is enough. Is the NSA exempt from GPRA? Besides how much information is already available openly in the media – if one, that is, understands and follows it? Why should we need to break into some company’s or country’s telecommunications or confidential data base to find out something we should have already gotten openly and for free? As I understand it, most of the useful information is right out there in front of our very eyes – if we open them.
Exactly what of importance is the US government going to learn about German policies, for instance, through Angela Merkel’s cell phone conversations that it hasn’t already learned through normal diplomatic exchanges or the media? We have a large embassy in Berlin headed by an Ambassador who should be in close contact with Merkel and her staff and career political officers in close contact with the opposition.
Besides, it’s not as if the German government is in cahoots with Al Qaeda after all or sports a manufacturing complex brimming over with chemical weapons. Furthermore, I always found the Germans more than forthright in my dealings with them and I don't think anything's changed.
As for the Russians . . .
It was quite clear that no one needed to break into secret Kremlin communications to know that the Soviet Union was, and had been, in deep trouble for some time – that is, if one spoke adequate Russian and got to know the territory and the people.
Oh, I almost forgot, that was when the US government had enough well trained Foreign Service Officers who were Russian specialists assigned to the Embassy in Moscow and our Consulate in then Leningrad. We also conducted numerous lively cultural and educational exchange programs with the blessings of the Soviet government which made it possible for us to break out of the Soviet-surrounded US embassy walls and experience the city, the country and the people first hand.
Moreover, we too had excellent researchers and analysts in the government and at American universities who had years before alerted our leadership to the fact that Soviet demographics alone spelled trouble for the country in the future.
In addition, the CIA operated an incredibly important unclassified media information gathering service called FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Information Service) which collected and translated Soviet media broadcasts and print publications into English. It worked overtime at the closing of the Cold War. FBIS translations were almost instantaneously available to US government employees as well as the public. I read reams of FBIS reports when I worked in the US Embassy in Helsinki at the time. They provided a stark and illuminating picture of what was happening just across the border – pretty much agreeing with what I was also reading in the Finnish press at the time.
But in a quirky twist of fate, we seem to have learned nothing at all. This time it is our own government secretly collecting – among zillions of other surreptitious intercepts - my conversations with my London-based son now employed in the private sector. What, pray tell, of US national security relevance does the NSA expect to gain from this information? And explain why should I be required to pay for it?