April 2015        

The unsavoury roots of surveillance

Dónall Ó Briain

The revelations about the extent to which Western governments spy on their own citizens (as well as those of other countries) might lead us to believe that this kind of illegality by “intelligence” agencies is a new phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth.
     As Europe again dices with fascism (this time sponsored and financed by the United States, with the collaboration of the European Union) it is useful to recall some of the events that preceded the Second World War and in particular the extent of collaboration between the British secret service and fascist Germany.
     On 30 March 1933—two months after Hitler became head of the German government, a month after the Reichstag fire, and a week after a parliamentary act gave Hitler absolute power—the deputy head of counter-intelligence at MI5, Guy Liddell, arrived in Berlin as a guest of the German political police (shortly afterwards renamed the Gestapo). For ten days, accompanied by the head of the Berlin station of MI6, Frank Foley, he was given access to the captured files of the Communist Party of Germany. The two Englishmen were given every facility in copying the documents.
     After a dinner with the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Liddell returned with his haul to London. There it would form part of the growing mountain of files on communists, Labour Party members, trade unionists, anti-fascists, pacifists and others who—throughout the war and afterwards—were spied on, shadowed, and intimidated, whose post was opened, whose telephones were tapped, whose homes were burgled, and whose employers were urged to sack them. More unpleasant still is the fact that the same tactics were employed against German and other Continental refugees who fled to sanctuary (as they thought) in England.
     The technology has changed, and the balance of power between the imperialist countries has shifted, so that today it is the United States that is the centre of illegal activity against its own citizens and those of its satellites. But the principle is the same as when the Special Branch steamed open correspondence with kettles and Post Office technicians put taps in telephone exchanges: the criminalising of opposition to capitalism.

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