[News] Trip reports reveal jailed subcontractor’s USAID Internet efforts in Cuba

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Feb 12 19:12:15 EST 2012



AP IMPACT: Trip reports reveal jailed American 
subcontractor’s USAID Internet efforts in Cuba

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/trip-reports-reveal-jailed-american-subcontractors-usaid-internet-efforts-in-cuba/2012/02/12/gIQAB3Pa8Q_print.html

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 Cuba’s 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 
Cuba’s 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 O’Connor. 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.

Cuba’s 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 community’s 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 USAID’s 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.”

USAID’s 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. It’s 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 agency’s 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 Cuba’s 
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. That’s for the Cuban people 
to decide, and we believe they should be afforded that choice.”

Others disagree.

“Of course, this is covert work,” said Robert 
Pastor, President Jimmy Carter’s national 
security adviser for Latin America and now 
director of the Center for Democracy and Election 
Management at American University in Washington. “It’s 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 island’s 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, Cuba’s 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 Gross’s 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 didn’t 
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 site’s 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 
O’Connor 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.

___

Follow Butler

at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler

___

The AP Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org




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