Monday, January 3, 2011

The Dogs of the Stasi

It is well known that the East German Ministry for State Security, usually just called the Stasi, spied on a significant proportion of the East German population. Police dogs were part of this repressive environment.

Not all uses of police dogs by the Stasi were particularly unusual. Most of the Stasi’s dogs, about 534 by 1988, performed guard and border duty. The agency also had 26 scent and tracking dogs, 15 “smell differentiation” dogs, and 10 bomb dogs. The dogs were trained in Pretzsch, a town near Leipzig.

Tracking dogs were used in criminal investigations, much the way they are used in the U.S., but by 1975 they began to follow spies and other enemies of the state. They were found valuable in this function because they did not need to remain in sight of the subject, but could follow at a sufficient distance that the subject would not know he was being followed. If the subject threw away a cigarette or gum wrapper and the dog alerted to it, it could be saved for further evaluation, though this was before the period of DNA testing.

The most interesting use of police dogs concerned scent identification, a method analyzed by Dutch and other researchers, but adapted by the unique paranoia of the Stasi. As early as 1973, the Stasi began collecting smell samples of a large number of citizens. Sometimes this was done with a special chair that the subject was asked to sit on during a visit to the police station. The chair had a dust cloth on top of the seat that was clamped into place by a removable frame. The subject had to sit in the chair for ten minutes, but after the interrogation was over, the dust cloth was removed and stored in a glass jar.

Sometimes Stasi officials did not bother with being subtle and merely told subjects to put a cloth under their armpits or even under their pants in the groin area. The cloth was carefully handled by tweezers in an effort not to allow contamination by other human scents. The picture shows scent jars, of which the Stasi eventually had thousands.

Scent lineups were used in much the same way as they have been used in other countries in an effort to match a perpetrator’s scent to that of a suspect in a lineup of jars with the scents of foils. Kristie Macrakis, who has a fascinating chapter on this subject in her book on the Stasi, says that by 1982 the Stasi even started developing a “smell vacuum cleaner,” presumably working on an idea similar to what led to the scent transfer unit. The STU 100 was not patented in the U.S. until 1998.

In 1979, the Stasi began to use scent identification in an attempt to find dissidents. A favored form of resistance in East Germany involved printing and distributing flyers that the East German government regarded as subversive. The people who printed the flyers, and those who distributed them, had become careful to avoid touching anything that could take a fingerprint. So the Stasi tried to use scent identification to find the perpetrators. Ms. Macrakis reports that in one instance Stasi handlers tried to match the smells of 51 suspects to odors on flyers, but without success. They did find a match to an informant, however, who was working both with the subversives and the government. The dog’s identification apparently overcame the informant’s claim that he was out of town when the flyers were distributed.

The records of the Stasi's use of scent differentiation dogs could conceivably provide valuable statistics on canine scent identification. On the other hand, in the paranoid world of the Stasi, dogs and handlers may have been encouraged to identify suspects, meaning that the records may include many false positives that would make the results scientifically suspect.

BBC News reported in May 2007 that German police had been compiling a database of human scents to track potentially violent protestors at a G8 summit. Many Germans expressed outrage that the Stasi’s canine investigative methods were still being used. A Cuban exile group has reported that Cuba had by the late 1980s adopted Stasi techniques for following dissidents, including developing an odorology laboratory and storing scents of dissidents in a large room in the Havana police station. The Cuban government obtained shepherds from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Hungary, as well as some less threatening Cocker spaniels. The report does not state how many dogs were devoted to scent identification.

Source: Kristie Macrakis, Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World (Cambridge University Press 2008)

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