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Secret police are a state-run police department that generally focuses on investigating and suppressing internal dissent or treason. Throughout history, secret police forces have been nearly synonymous with the reign of totalitarian governments, though some moderate and democratic nations also have possessed quasi-secret police groups from time to time. The power of this type of police force is often closely linked to the reign of a specific dictator, political party, or head of state; in many cases, the mandate of the agency is to protect the agenda of its employer, rather than written law.
The “secret” of secret police refers to a non-transparent mode of operations. Unlike regular police, who may need to wear uniforms, display identification, and closely follow rules regarding the permitted surveillance and treatment of citizens, this far more powerful form of police may operate without oversight, public transparency, or adherence to laws. Throughout history, secret security forces have been linked to torture, murders, and unlawful exile of prisoners.
One of the most famous secret forces groups in history is the Gestapo. Operating in Germany during the era of Hitler's totalitarian regime, the Gestapo worked alongside other Nazi-run police forces to round up and frequently eliminate political dissenters as well as Jewish people, homosexuals, Communists, and other enemies of the Nazi state. The Gestapo worked with total freedom, able to detain, torture, and execute without any form of justice system. One special organization within the Gestapo, called the Reinstatement, worked exclusively to round up Jews and dispatch them to the horrors of the concentration camps.
Following the end of World War II, the rise of the Committee for State Security (KGB) in Russia created another titanic secret police force. The KGB worked simultaneously as an intelligence-gathering and internal police force; its mandate largely concerned the protection of the Communist regime by the suppression or elimination of dissent within Soviet-held territories. Spying on citizens, the KGB worked to destroy anti-Communist literature, religious movements, and any sign of a potential uprising against the powerful government.
Police forces like the Gestapo and the KGB are hardly a thing of the past. Under the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, ousted from power in 2011, the State Secret Police is believed by many experts to have been responsible for murders, beatings, and the illegal trial and execution of many Egyptian citizens. After the resignation of President Mubarak, the Egyptian government quickly moved to disband the much-hated organization.
To a certain extent, most nations allow certain security forces to work partially in secret. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency both are permitted certain protections from public scrutiny in order to preserve the security of their work. What distinguishes these, and many other national security forces from secret police status is their adherence to law and the criminal justice system, something that rarely concerns a secret force.