(Nina Khrushcheva is a Reuters columnist but her opinions are her own.)
By Nina Khrushcheva
NEW YORK, June 28 (Reuters) - When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the U.S. National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and 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."
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 was not 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's 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 then 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, saying 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.
(Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at the New School University in New York City. She is the author of "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics.")