NSA as ‘Big Brother’? Not even close

June 28, 2013

Reader holding a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, June 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and U.S. government programs pulling in emails and photographs from internet businesses, suddenly “George Orwell” was leading the news.

The British essayist predicted it all, commentators asserted, and the United States now seems straight out of 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future. “Big Brother” had arrived.

This is ridiculous.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden might claim that America is under the Big Brother’s glare, but he does not understand what this really means. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I knew Big Brother. This is not even close.

In 1982, for example, when I was in high school in Moscow, I was on the phone with one of my closest friends, talking about how relieved we were that Leonid Brezhnev had finally died, after 18 years of stifling power. Suddenly, there was a metallic click on the line and we heard a dour man’s voice. A KGB functionary, no doubt. “Hang up the phone,” he demanded, “immediately.” We did.

I dare anyone to tell me that this has happened to you in the United States.

Both supporters and critics of this sweeping NSA surveillance are passionate in their arguments. Advocates insist that the NSA’s metadata gathering is a legitimate use of state power, because all three branches of government have signed off on the program, and it keeps the country safe. Critics assert this is what Big Brother is all about — manipulating the rule of law for the benefit of the few at the top. Their spying doesn’t protect the nation but helps maintain their grip on power.

But when Orwell wrote his novel in 1948, he wasn’t warning against the NSA — which was actually created four years later in order to break enemy codes in defense of American values of freedom. Orwell’s Big Brother, in the nation of Oceania in 1984, was about Nazi Germany’s Gestapo or Joseph Stalin’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB), dictatorial outfits that surrender to the views of just one man.

Under those despotic regimes, the public was manipulated and harsh punishments against “thoughtcrime” and free will were rationalized as necessary for public good.

In the Soviet Union, writers were sent to the gulag for the critical thoughts of their fictional characters. At school, we had to start every paper praising the Communist Party. If you began with your own thoughts, you were guaranteed an “F” — no college, no job, no nothing. Beat that!

Only those who read Orwell, but have never lived in the world he portrayed, could view President Barack Obama’s justifications — that data gathering is necessary to identify “potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism” — as a standard government trick to deflate fears about violations of Americans’ privacy rights. In fact, the recent Senate hearings about Internet surveillance and the White House explanation that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls” demonstrate efforts for transparency that no dictatorial regime would ever make.

Obama has said that he welcomes debates about the balance between spying and security. In my early life in the Soviet Union, any conversation critical of the state had to be held on a balcony or in a cramped bathroom with the water running. To most Americans, it would have looked as if we were enacting a scene from a John le Carré novel. Even thinking about my privacy rights was an Orwellian “thoughtcrime.”

The American public is prudent to ask questions about the NSA program. Not in vain, President Ronald Reagan used to warn his Cold War rival about the need to “trust but verify.”

Yet comparing the United States to dystopian Oceania only shows how lucky today’s democracies are. They can debate about “Big Brother” — who has to explain himself to citizens. Obama is the first U.S. president to publicly admit his government is overseeing the electronic life of its citizens. Even this concession riled his constant bête noire, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In a recent interview on Fox News, Cheney, his newly transplanted heart as hardened as ever, insisted that leadership decisions should never be explained and that Obama is wrong to justify the NSA program because it would only harm the cause. The public is warned — but so is the enemy. So, Cheney’s reasoning would seem to suggest, who cares about the public?

It was under President George W. Bush, and Cheney, that the United States began to copy — in form, if not in substance — aspects of Soviet behavior, such as deploying Orwellian newspeak to validate preventative wars.

Cheney resolutely insisted in 2005 that “waterboarding is not torture but a good program” because it was used against the enemies of the people. In 2006, he firmly denied that the government was spying on Americans on U.S. soil — there was no “domestic surveillance program.”

Not that the Obama administration has been fully open on this issue. When National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified about NSA data collection at a March 2011 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, he said it was, “Not wittingly.”

Still, few leaders in a democracy reject the public’s right to question them. This was not the prevailing attitude I experienced growing up in propaganda-saturated Moscow. I know these dictatorial ways in my bones, more so than most Soviets, since Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier who succeeded Stalin and preceded Brezhnev, was my great-grandfather.

Generations of Soviet rulers, Khrushchev included, had systemized propaganda into a central element of the state. Their pompous posters and statues were a costume of a totalitarian society — where all decisions were handed top-down and the silent public was excluded from any participation in the political process.

The closest thing I ever experienced to that here in the United States was Cheney’s post-September 11 talk of “overwhelming” facts in pressing for an implausible connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. It was a blast from the Brezhnev-era past. For it was eerily familiar to Orwell’s 1984 slogan, “War is Peace, Freedom Slavery, Ignorance Strength.”

In addition, when information was proven false, as it was with the pretense to invade Iraq in 2003, there was no regret or remorse on the part of the all-knowing leader.

Cheney was a marvel of democracy, a black orchid, whose autocratic behavior was fit for a marble statue, even of a city or state dedication — Cheinograd, Cheinistan. In another country — Oceania, the Soviet Union or even the current Russia, where elections look like just a scheme to prolong Vladimir Putin’s presidency — someone like Cheney would have stayed on beyond his constitutional term, stifling public debate and insisting on government’s supremacy.

A hypothetical scenario, but worthy of consideration — particularly for Snowden in his quest for the “truth.” He fled the United States, a country with functional, if imperfect, checks and balances, for places — China, Russia, Ecuador — that unabashedly observe a one-man rule, hamper freedom of speech and ignore government accountability.

Take it from a former Soviet: Secret defense programs don’t necessarily violate privacy or rights, and the capabilities to spy are always there — in any country and at any time. It’s their application and the people’s ability to separate democracy from dictatorship that makes all the difference.


PHOTO (Insert A): George Orwell  WIKICOMMONS

PHOTO (Insert B): Demonstrators hold a red flag and a portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the celebrations of his 120th birthday in his hometown Gori on Dec. 21, 1999. REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (Insert C): Vice President Dick Cheney sings the Air Force Song at the Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Mar. 21, 2006.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert D): Vice President Dick Cheney (L) listens to President George W. Bush speak in Washington Feb. 28, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing



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The underlying premise of this entire article is based on a flawed position.

We do not start from the most oppressive of regimes and then say, “What the US government is doing isn’t as awful as what Stalin and Hitler did with their surveillance”.

Instead, we start from an assumption of freedom and privacy and we set the bar there. From that perspective, we see how invasive these measures are that the NSA and US government are taking.

Posted by saraboivin | Report as abusive

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about regarding the NSA. I was one of those guys doing the monitoring, and it was comprehensive as far back as the ’70s. Initially, we targeted the Soviets, now they target EVERYBODY. And yes, that capability is there, in place, working, and unaccounted for.

This government maintains a secret list of who can travel in the air, and who cannot. No one knows who is on the list, how or why they got there, and has no appeal process for how they get off. The list has been repeatedly shown to have serious flaws, major errors, and it remains beyond accountability for those failures. The same people that built that list are the ones doing communication monitoring.

One of the ways we beat the Soviets was the openness of our system. We have accountability in the West. I will not trade that away. Government needs to earn the trust to gain power. These guys blew it, and they need to have that power taken away.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

The real fear, to me, is Big Brother has learned from the mistakes made in the USSR and is now acting more quietly and insidiously.

We’re given the illusions of democracy, privacy and freedom. We get a choice of two candidates who have the same plans for our freedoms at the polls. (Compare Obama’s campaign speeches on surveillance to the more recent ones to see how well that “choice” served the electorate.)
Instead of blatant propaganda which makes used car sales pitches sound honest, we’re encouraged to discuss issues of privacy. Though, of course, the full facts and the ability to make real changes are firmly entrenched in Big Brother’s grasp. (Compare Clapper’s flagrantly false testimony in 2011 with the author’s willingness to believe “the White House explanation that ‘nobody is listening to your telephone calls.\'”)
And sure, you can criticize the government while keeping your job and avoiding prison, but what can do to regain your rights?

At least in the USSR it was clear that one was being oppressed. You didn’t seem paranoid for thinking your every action was monitored. In the gilded zoo in which I fear we are now living in, we get just enough freedom — the illusion of choice– for us to believe we aren’t cogs being manipulated. And to make those of us who try to see beyond this scheme seem like hopeless mad conspiracy theorists.

The truth is being rewritten just so quietly and unobtrusively that we never notice the revisions. This hidden Brother is much more frightening that the overt violent one.

Posted by roboticowl | Report as abusive

I cannot express how much the author doesn’t understand about the lack of ability to escape from these madmen. Who can really believe that our plutocratic world leaders would repeat the same mistakes. The current method is to look good, while doing evil. Because looking evil while doing evil made people lack the motivation to slave for them in their endeavors that tend to lead to the poisoning of large groups of people, that they coincidentally do not like or respect. And when venomous people lose respect for others, rarely is it resolved peacefully, and even rarer are those seen as enemies left in peace. As long as those who oppose them are seen as crazy, they have no need to strike with force, but as soon as they are taken seriously, then the vengeance towards those that do not keep in line is brutal. Often they play the good cop bad cop routine, communist vs capitalist vs socialist vs democratic, with someone always reminding us doom is right around the corner, so a few hundred thousand civilian casualties are worth the price for the hope for peace in the future. The US today is fighting Russia’s enemies from yesterday for what, to get them off Russia’s backs? The ends justify the means, and if it gives Russia the time to focus on their own people (taking away their rights Bush/Cheney style, which is actually Putin style originally, or Nazi style originally, but that’s crazy talk as soon as someone says the N word), then the world be damned. It’s not that complicated, there are a lot of feelings alive and well seeking vengeance for the loss of the great vision seen by the fascists, and as far as I can tell they have everything in place to make the world a hell-scape for anyone who doesn’t see their new world order as a good thing. Who get’s to live and prosper in this new world? The eugenically perfected? They already have the science, now they just need to thin the numbers with a bit more nuclear and “natural” disasters, with a heaping side of war. Sorry if I sound a bit crazy, but this is a crazy time we live in.

Posted by epockismet | Report as abusive

Arguing with people who believe in this totalitarian Big Brother conspiracy to keep the people down is like arguing with Mormon missionaries, but I will give it a shot.

The point here is not that the NSA didn’t overstep. Khrushcheva clearly makes this point in statements like this: “The American public is prudent to ask questions about the NSA program.”

The point is that fears that an Orwellian totalitarian dystopia have come to pass are exaggerated. If this were the case, then why oh why are Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh still on the air?

As to this “softer, gentler” totalitarianism: The political system in the United States is definitely corrupted by money. Yet no-one tries to address this in any meaningful way. If We, the People, were to hold to our values and insist that our representatives institute campaign finance reform as well as regulations on lobbying – and slam the revolving door closed, while they’re at it – then this illusion that we are helpless at the hands of an invisible enemy would be vanquished. That illusion of helplessness is how the system remains in place.

Posted by julierbutler | Report as abusive

Oh okay its not as bad as the Soviet Union, so everythings fine.

Posted by wonderinghow | Report as abusive

Oh okay its not as bad as the Soviet Union, so everything’s fine.

Posted by wonderinghow | Report as abusive

Great article that speaks to the truth of our democracy vs the Soviet Union and it’s complete oppression of it’s people.

We have known of this program and openly discuss this program. Mr. S could have simply gone to a country as benign as Iceland and spoken of his knowledge and shared his understanding of it with media. But, he chose to go to oppressive regimes that in fact imprison people for their words and have complete networks of surveillance of their people to complain about possible misuse of a known program approved by our three branches of government?

Mr. S is no hero, has chosen to disclose information that harms human rights throughout the world with his cozying up to China and Russia and has exposed information that is harmful to not only the US but to the worlds efforts to stop terrorism. Russia and China are known for jailing dissidents. Where’s your example here?

Yes, you don’t know everything about what our government is doing in detail. You can’t know secret information that is used to protect you because it will no longer protect you just like you don’t know about criminal investigations by local police. How many have even considered the level of trust that is imparted every day with policemen, with cashiers taking you credit card, your doctors secretary who knows you have some STD. It’s as though many people live in a fantasy of privacy while standing naked on the 50 yard line of a stadium and random hackers looking at you through your webcam stealing and sharing YOUR information in any way they wish. With 6 Billion phone calls made in the US alone in a single day NO ONE IS LISTENING to you. Worldwide it’s 50 Billion a day and more than a Trillion minutes of conversation. Could a person in this program illegally find your calls and look at them? Probably. Could someone stalking you break in your house and take your data or read your email? Yes. They’re both breaking the law and risk going to jail.

If you made some calls to a likely terrorist overseas then things change and you may be officially tagged. I’m fine with that. If you don’t know you’re talking to a potential terrorist perhaps you’d even like to know. Even the Tsarnevs slipped through while being considered suspicious. Clearly they’re not “listening” to everyone nor are they even remotely likely to.

Posted by runnerbob | Report as abusive

How exactly does the writer think the Soviet Union GOT to that state by the time she got to her teens? What we’re seeing now is the slow, systematic buildup of the technology, laws and personnel that will allow precisely that: Big Brother. It takes time. But they’re determined.

Posted by threeoutside | Report as abusive

Their is a saying ” A little leaven, leavens the whole lump. Obviously this Soviet person has lived under great despotism. But that just means during the time of his life. I can only assume that his country’s communism grew into the monster that ours is growing into. Maybe he is not aware of the body scans and drones that are forced upon us. I will admit that he also had body scans during his time. They were just a little more physical, if you know what I mean; clubs and beatings and killings by his people. WAIT !!!! , I just realized that has been going on here for a couple 100 years..lol
Get real Soviet Sir

Posted by madmax60 | Report as abusive

It doesn’t appear that you approved my last feedback and so the soviet would be wrong in that we are also told to hang up

Posted by madmax60 | Report as abusive

I think I will run over to prison planet .com and show them the post and your replies……. You all probably voted for Obama anyway

Posted by madmax60 | Report as abusive

‘Suddenly, there was a metallic click on the line and we heard a dour man’s voice. A KGB functionary, no doubt. “Hang up the phone,” he demanded, “immediately.” We did.
I dare anyone to tell me that this has happened to you in the United States’…

This is a disingenuous argument. First, the technology to ‘capture’ conversations for possible future use against anyone, was largely non-existent in 1980’s Moscow. However, the technology to capture, retain and store, and later recall information is greatly enhanced in the US in the 21st century. We have a technological capability to monitor American lives that far outstrips anything (ANYTHING) that the soviets could do in the 1980’s. And, we can do it without anyone noticing.

‘Generations of Soviet rulers, Khrushchev included, had systemized propaganda into a central element of the state.’ ….

Here I must call ‘BS’…. You cannot imply that Faux Noise, and even many other in the main stream media, have not ‘turned their attention’ away from the message and onto the messenger (Snowden). If this is NOT a contrived situation, I will eat your Moscow hat….

If you don’t realize that the ‘dumbing down’ of the American public is happening, and or the vitriol that spews from the news (or from some propaganda machine?) everyday is an effort to stifle public debate, then your education is sorely lacking. All one has to do is troll the comment section on these stories, to see the actions and reactions of these stories.

I personally appreciate your sacrifice as a youngster in Moscow, but it seems to me you have been ‘blinded by the light’ that was shown on you when you arrived here the first time. I am reminded of a story told to me by a young Russian immigrant who was a student of mine. He told me of stories about how flabbergasted his family was when they saw grocery stores here in the USA (1970’s). He experienced such ‘culture shock’ that for him, everything (EVERYTHING) about American became wonderful…. He was ‘blinded by the light’ of his first experience.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

The problem is that the United States is heading downward. While China and Russia are becoming more interested in economic prowess, the United States is becoming obsessed with control. Recent Supreme Court precedent just two weeks ago eliminated the famous right to remain silent and now people have to quote specific language–language that they probably don’t know. The percentage of criminal appeals being granted went from about 28% in the 1970s and 1980s to about 4 percent today (meaning the checks and balances are leaving). We are publicly making threats and asking other countries to deny Snowden due process and summarily expel him in contravention of treaties that we entered into such as the refugee convention. It’s just no the same ‘old USA anymore.

Posted by AnonymousHell | Report as abusive

nothing is more fatuous that a right-wing ideologue whose frame of reference is the old USSR.

there are now mountains of documentary evidence that the US government performs exactly the same types of activities that it has decried as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ acts by other states. the only distinction is which empire is doing the dirt, and who are the people being shat upon.

if you are concerned about the rights of people globally, the answer to the question is clear.

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive

What worries me is the new data center the US is opening that can hold unbelievable amounts of data on everyone in the country. This president used data mining techniques to help him win the last election besides the many lies. Can you imagine what can be done using these techniques when you have PETA amounts of data. It’s scary.

Posted by jorge62 | Report as abusive

In the 1980s there was no such thing as a ‘Free Speech Zone’ in the US.

Posted by VinnieTheSnake | Report as abusive

Give the US government some more time, Ms. K, and it will surpass “1984”. After all, we now have the extended and expanded Patriot Act, NDAA, drones and so much more than was dreamed of in the past.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

We are NOT “lucky” to live in an open society, it is enshrined in our constitution, and has been fought over by activists and citizens alike in our country for centuries. It is no accident, but the product of an informed citizenry.

What Snowden referred to our system as, was not 1984, (that was implied by others): he said that our system is “turn-key totalitarianism” and we now know that it is. Not yet, but the systems are in place, all a would-be supreme ruler has to do it make a small change to the syst5em to begin using this massive apparatus against our own people. All this data tells a lot more about you than people think: including your political beliefs.

I am disgusted that as a former soviet citizen, you would defend a move in the slide toward a police state for being “not bad enough to worry about” Stalin didn’t show up until the groundwork had been laid, of course.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

The fact that people KNEW about Soviet or Stasi monitoring is one key glaring difference. You KNEW to keep your mouth shut, to frame your words, thoughts & deeds in a particular way. You didn’t share your real thoughts, and when you did, the KGB reminded you not to.

Do you remember the END of 1984? It’s when Winston, the main character, finally gives in & stops caring that Big Brother is watching & monitoring his thoughts. He decides he loves Big Brother, and in that very moment they put a bullet in his brain in the middle of a public place, and nobody around dares to care or ask ‘why?’.

What makes the NSA revelations more frightening is that Americans assume a (clearly incorrect) expectation of freedom, of privacy, of free speech, free thought, etc. We grow up being told to speak our minds, because it’s our Constitutional right!

The result? The NSA, without consent, warrants, transparency, oversight, or expiration of the data, are secretly collecting something the Nazis, Soviets, and Orwell’s Big Brother never had: totally ACCURATE and TRUTHFUL representations of society. The data they (illegally) collect on most Americans isn’t peppered with knowing winks & propaganda catch phrases – it’s real. And they collect it on such a massive scale the measurements for it hadn’t been invented in 1982.

Even without active realtime monitoring, they can more quickly, more accurately, and more thoroughly identify the personal details, habits, relationships, thoughts, fears, patterns & exploitable weaknesses of anybody they choose. The coverage is far more pervasive, complete & advanced than ANY system used by any previous totalitarian regime. Your “Not even close” is facing the wrong direction.

The fact that we don’t currently have a strong-man authoritarian leader or actively oppressive government is meaningless. Those things are no longer necessary for control. We love our country & trust it, and where is Afghanistan again? West Eurasia?

IF the day ever does come when factions of US gov’t decide to more actively use these tools against Americans, they will already know everything they need to know about every single person in the country. You don’t get more totalitarian than that.

Posted by WoBuYaoTweet | Report as abusive

There are some real differences as the author points out, that we harm ourselves by ignoring. Our leaders are elected openly and peacefully like clockwork, no Putin/Medvedev shuffling or choreographed, predestined 5-year Party Congresses. Due process catches up with wrongdoers up to highest levels here, compared to unsolved murders and disappearances.

Assange and Snowden show that all is not utopia in the West, but the West is still the bright light of due process, freedom and opportunity for most of the world, a lineage that took a couple of thousand years, with mistakes along the way, to arrive at what only a minority of the world’s population enjoys today.

We could do better than NSA, etc., yes, but we already do much better than the handful of single-party totalitarian countries (where a privileged few rule over about 2 billion total people) that are trying to capitalize on Snowden to use him as a ‘snow job’ to cover their own far more pervasive, intrusive, deadly and demoralizing internal attacks on freedom, privacy, rule of law, and representation.

The big issue is the damage from Snowden as a distraction from China, and how the $200+ billion cost to west of industrial espionage is about equal to imports from the west; and Russia; both propping up the most repressive dictators world wide, both with communism having arrived at a far more naked and corrupt grab of power money and influence than the worst “one percent / wall street / watergate” excesses that are prosecuted here.

I agree things are not perfect in the west, but keep some perspective, yes some motes in our eye could be flushed out – but they are still motes, not logs.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive


It’s nice to be the great ganddaughter of a former Soviet Premier. That way you can grow up in a royal family and then move to the US, capitalize on your fame, become part of the US ruling class and tell everyone how great it is to be surveilled by the NSA.

Posted by jimst | Report as abusive

What Ms. Khrushcheva seems to forget is that the United States has a constitution that guarantees freedoms — of privacy, of speech, and of thought.

When the NSA, CIA, DIA, and other three-letter agencies of the federal government turn their listening devices back on the nation they serve, when they collect, store and analyze this data under the philosophy of “guilty until proved innocent,” when they suspend habeas courpus and hold American and other citizens in secret places away from the light of justice — they violate basic American principles guaranteed by our constitution.

Perhaps Ms. Khrushcheva is happy to have the impression of free speech — you are right, there is no “click” on the line tonight — but if a government suspends the Bill of Rights at its own convenience, what guarantees do you have that the black mariah will not show up some other night?

There is no Hitler, no Stalin, and therefore, no tension between political poles. Today, we have one superpower with capabilities that Orwell may not have imagined. Which is worse?

Yesterday, this country, with its vast influence, downed and detained the official airplane of the president of Bolivia. Had another country done the same to Air Force One, can you imagine the military repercussions?

Yes, the United States today is preferable to the USSR of which you speak, but are we moving away from or toward that model of totalitarian oppression?

Posted by SpiderMarlowe | Report as abusive