[News] Trip reports reveal jailed subcontractors USAID Internet efforts in Cuba
news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Feb 12 19:12:15 EST 2012
AP IMPACT: Trip reports reveal jailed American
subcontractors USAID Internet efforts in Cuba
By Associated Press, Updated: Sunday, February 12, 2:24 PM
WASHINGTON Piece by piece, in backpacks and
carry-on bags, American aid contractor Alan Gross
made sure laptops, smartphones, hard drives and
networking equipment were secreted into Cuba. The
most sensitive item, according to official trip
reports, was the last one: a specialized mobile
phone chip that experts say is often used by the
Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track.
The purpose, according to an Associated Press
review of Gross reports, was to set up
uncensored satellite Internet service for Cubas small Jewish community.
The operation was funded as democracy promotion
for the U.S. Agency for International
Development, established in 1961 to provide
economic, development and humanitarian assistance
around the world in support of U.S. foreign
policy goals. Gross, however, identified himself
as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, not a
representative of the U.S. government.
Cuban President Raul Castro called him a spy, and
Gross was sentenced last March to 15 years in
prison for seeking to undermine the integrity
and independence of Cuba. U.S. officials say he
did nothing wrong and was just carrying out the normal mission of USAID.
Gross said at his trial in Cuba that he was a
trusting fool who was duped. But his trip
reports indicate that he knew his activities were
illegal in Cuba and that he worried about the
danger, including possible expulsion.
One report says a community leader made it
abundantly clear that we are all playing with fire.
Another time Gross said: This is very risky business in no uncertain terms.
And finally: Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.
The case has heightened frictions in the
decades-long political struggle between the
United States and its communist neighbor to the
south, and raises questions about how far
democracy-building programs have gone and
whether cloak-and-dagger work is better left to intelligence operatives.
Gross company, JBDC Inc., which specializes in
setting up Internet access in remote locations
like Iraq and Afghanistan, had been hired by
Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI, of
Bethesda, Maryland, which had a
multimillion-dollar contract with USAID to break
Cubas information blockade by technological
outreach through phone banks, satellite Internet and cell phones.
USAID officials reviewed Gross trip reports and
received regular briefings on his progress,
according to DAI spokesman Steven OConnor. The
reports were made available to the AP by a person
familiar with the case who insisted on anonymity
because of the documents sensitivity.
The reports cover four visits over a five-month
period in 2009. Another report, written by a
representative of Gross company, covered his
fifth and final trip, the one that ended with his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009.
Together, the reports detail the lengths to which
Gross went to escape Cuban authorities detection.
To avoid airport scrutiny, Gross enlisted the
help of other American Jews to bring in
electronic equipment a piece at a time. He
instructed his helpers to pack items, some of
them banned in Cuba, in carry-on luggage, not checked bags.
He once drove seven hours after clearing security
and customs rather than risk airport searches.
On his final trip, he brought in a discreet SIM
card or subscriber identity module card
intended to keep satellite phone transmissions
from being pinpointed within 250 miles (400
kilometers), if they were detected at all.
The type of SIM card used by Gross is not
available on the open market and is distributed
only to governments, according to an official at
a satellite telephone company familiar with the
technology and a former U.S. intelligence
official who has used such a chip. The officials,
who spoke on condition of anonymity because of
the sensitivity of the technology, said the chips
are provided most frequently to the Defense
Department and the CIA, but also can be obtained
by the State Department, which oversees USAID.
Asked how Gross obtained the card, USAID
spokesman Drew Bailey said only that the agency
played no role in helping Gross acquire
equipment. We are a development agency, not an intelligence agency, he said.
Cubas communist government considers all USAID
democracy promotion activities to be illegal and
a national security threat. USAID denies that any of its work is covert.
Gross American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, declined
comment but has said in the past that Gross
actions were not aimed at subverting the Cuban government.
Cuban authorities consider Internet access to be
a matter of national security and block some
sites that are critical of the government, as
well as pages with content that they deem as
counterrevolutionary. Most Cubans have access
only to a severely restricted island-wide Intranet service.
Proponents of providing Internet access say it
can undermine authoritarian governments that
control the flow of information to their people.
Critics say the practice not only endangers
contractors like Gross, but all American aid
workers, even those not involved in secret activities.
All too often, the outside perception is that
these USAID people are intelligence officers,
said Philip Giraldi, an ex-CIA officer. That
makes it bad for USAID, it makes it bad for the
CIA and for any other intelligence agency who
like to fly underneath the radar.
Even before he delivered the special SIM card,
Gross noted in a trip report that use of Internet
satellite phones would be problematic if
exposed. He was aware that authorities were
using sophisticated detection equipment and said
he saw workers for the government-owned
telecommunications service provider conduct a
radio frequency sniff the day before he was to
set up a communitys Wi-Fi operation.
U.S. diplomats say they believe Gross was
arrested to pressure the Obama administration to
roll back its democracy-promotion programs. The
Cuban government has alleged without citing any
evidence that the programs, funded under a 1996
law calling for regime change in Cuba, are run by
the CIA as part of an intelligence plan to topple the government in Havana.
While the U.S. government broadly outlines the
goals of its aid programs in publicly available
documents, the work in Cuba could not exist
without secrecy because it is illegal there.
Citing security concerns, U.S. agencies have
refused to provide operational details even to
congressional committees overseeing the programs.
The reason there is less disclosure on these
programs in totalitarian countries is because the
people are already risking their lives to
exercise their fundamental rights, said Mauricio
Claver-Carone, who runs the Washington-based Cuba Democracy Advocates.
USAID rejected the notion that its contractors perform covert work.
Nothing about USAIDs Cuba programs is covert or
classified in any way, says Mark Lopes, a deputy
assistant administrator. We simply carry out
activities in a discreet manner to ensure the
greatest possible safety of all those involved.
The U.S. National Security Act defines covert
as government activities aimed at influencing
conditions abroad where it is intended that the
role of the United States Government will not be
apparent or acknowledged publicly.
USAIDs democracy promotion work in Cuba was
spurred by a large boost in funding under the
Bush administration and a new focus on providing
communications technology to Cubans. U.S. funding
for Cuban aid multiplied from $3.5 million in
2000 to $45 million in 2008. Its now $20 million.
Gross was paid a half-million dollars as a USAID
subcontractor, according to U.S. officials
familiar with the contract. They spoke only on
condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the case.
USAID head Raj Shah said democracy promotion is
absolutely central to his agencys work. The
Obama administration says its Cuba programs aim
to help politically repressed citizens enjoy
fundamental rights by providing humanitarian
support, encouraging democratic development and
aiding the free flow of information.
U.S. officials say Gross work was not subversion
because he was setting up connections for Cubas
Jewish community, not for dissidents. Jewish
leaders have said that they were unaware of
Gross connections to the U.S. government and
that they already were provided limited Internet
access. USAID has not said why it thought the
community needed such sensitive technology.
Asked if such programs are meant to challenge
existing leaders, Lopes said, For USAID, our
democracy programs in Cuba are not about changing
a particular regime. Thats for the Cuban people
to decide, and we believe they should be afforded that choice.
Of course, this is covert work, said Robert
Pastor, President Jimmy Carters national
security adviser for Latin America and now
director of the Center for Democracy and Election
Management at American University in Washington. Its about regime change.
Gross, of Potomac, Maryland, was a gregarious
man, about 6 feet (1.8 meters) and 250 pounds
(113 kilograms). He was hard to miss. He had
bought a Rosetta Stone language course to improve
his rudimentary Spanish and had scant knowledge
of Cuba. But he knew technology. His company
specialized in installing communications gear in remote parts of the world.
Gross first trip for DAI, which ended in early
April 2009, focused on getting equipment in and
setting up the first of three facilities with
Wi-Fi hotspots that would give unrestricted
Internet access to hundreds of Cubans, especially
the islands small Jewish community of 1,500.
To get the materials in, Gross relied on American
Jewish humanitarian groups doing missions on the
island. He traveled with the groups, relying on
individuals to help bring in the equipment, according to the trip reports.
Three people briefed on Gross work say he told
contacts in Cuba he represented a Jewish
organization, not the U.S. government. USAID says
it now expects people carrying out its programs
to disclose their U.S. government funding to the
people they are helping if asked.
One of Gross reports suggests he represented
himself as a member of one of the groups and that
he traveled with them so he could intercede with
Cuban authorities if questions arose.
The helpers were supposed to pack single pieces
of equipment in their carry-on luggage. That way,
Gross wrote, any questions could best be handled
during the X-ray process at security, rather than
at a customs check. The material was delivered to
Gross later at a Havana hotel, according to the trip reports.
USAID has long relied on visitors willing to
carry in prohibited material, such as books and
shortwave radios, U.S. officials briefed on the
programs say. And USAID officials have
acknowledged in congressional briefings that they
have used contractors to bring in software to
send encrypted messages over the Internet,
according to participants in the briefings.
An alarm sounded on one of Gross trips when one
of his associates tried to leave the airport
terminal; the courier had placed his cargo a
device that can extend the range of a wireless network into his checked bag.
Gross intervened, saying the device was for
personal use and was not a computer hard drive or a radio.
According to the trip reports, customs officials
wanted to charge a 100 percent tax on the value
of the item, but Gross bargained them down and was allowed to leave with it.
On that day, it was better to be lucky than smart, Gross wrote.
Much of the equipment Gross helped bring in is
legal in Cuba, but the volume of the goods could
have given Cuban authorities a good idea of what he was up to.
Total equipment listed on his fourth trip
included 12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve
smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte
external drives, three Internet satellite phones
known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers,
18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks,
three phones to make calls over the Internet, and
networking switches. Some pieces, such as the
networking and satellite equipment, are explicitly forbidden in Cuba.
Gross wrote that he smuggled the BGANs in a
backpack. He had hoped to fool authorities by
taping over the identifying words on the
equipment: Hughes, the manufacturer, and
Inmarsat, the company providing the satellite Internet service.
The BGANs were crucial because they provide not
only satellite telephone capacity but an Internet
signal that can establish a Wi-Fi hotspot for
multiple users. The appeal of using satellite
Internet connections is that data goes straight
up, never passing through government-controlled servers.
There was always the chance of being discovered.
Last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
asked about clandestine methods used to hide the
programs and reports that some of them had been penetrated.
Possible counterintelligence penetration is a
known risk in Cuba, the State Department said in
a written response to AP. Those who carry out
our assistance are aware of such risks.
Gross first trip to Cuba ended in early April
2009 with establishment of a communications site in Havana.
He went back later that month and stayed about 10
days while a site was set up in Santiago, Cubas second-largest city.
On his third trip, for two weeks in June 2009,
Gross traveled to a city in the middle of the
island identified by a U.S. official as Camaguey.
He rented a car in Havana and drove seven hours
rather than risk another encounter with airport authorities.
Gross wrote that BGANs should not be used outside
Havana, where there were enough radio frequency devices to hide the emissions.
The report for Grosss fourth trip, which ended
early that August, was marked final and
summarized his successes: wireless networks
established in three communities; about 325
users; communications to and from the U.S. have
improved and used on a regular basis. He again
concluded the operation was very risky business.
Gross would have been fine if he had stopped there.
In late November 2009, however, he went back to
Cuba for a fifth time. This time he didnt
return. He was arrested 11 days later.
An additional report was written afterward on the
letterhead of Gross company. It was prepared
with assistance from DAI to fulfill a contract
requirement for a summary of his work, and so
everyone could get paid, according to officials familiar with the document.
The report said Gross had planned to improve
security of the Havana site by installing an
alternative sim card on the satellite equipment.
The card would mask the signal of the BGAN as it
transmitted to a satellite, making it difficult
to track where the device was located.
The document concluded that the sites security had been increased.
It is unclear how DAI confirmed Gross work for
the report on the final trip, though a document,
also on Gross company letterhead, states that a
representative for Gross contacted the Jewish
community in Cuba five times after his arrest.
In a statement at his trial, Gross professed his innocence and apologized.
I have never, would never and will never
purposefully or knowingly do anything personally
or professionally to subvert a government, he
said. I am deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped. I was used.
In an interview with AP, his wife, Judy, blamed
DAI, the company that sent him to Cuba, for
misleading him on the risks. DAI spokesman
OConnor said in a statement that Gross
designed, proposed, and implemented this work for the company.
Meanwhile, the 62-year-old Gross sits in a
military prison hospital. His family says he has
lost about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and they
express concern about his health. All the U.S.
diplomatic attempts to win his freedom have come
up empty and there is no sign that Cuba is
prepared to act on appeals for a humanitarian release.
The AP Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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