Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alan Gross from his own reports

AP IMPACT: USAID contractor work in Cuba detailed

Originally published: February 12, 2012 10:41 AM
Updated: February 12, 2012 5:23 PM

By The Associated Press  DESMOND BUTLER (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON - (AP) -- 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
The AP Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Julia Sweig Overview for Council on Foreign Relations

The Frozen U.S.-Cuba Relationship

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Interviewer: Brianna Lee, Production Editor,

February 28, 2012

Fifty years after the United States enacted an embargo on all trade and commercial transactions with Cuba, relations between the two countries remain at a standstill. Julia E. Sweig, CFR's director of Latin American studies, says the Obama administration has prioritized domestic politics over foreign policy in its relationship with Cuba, even as Cuban President Raul Castro has been "moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make." The case of American USAID contractor Alan Gross, currently serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba (CubanTriangle) on charges of attempting to upend the regime through a U.S.-authorized democracy promotion program, has also heightened tensions, she says. Meanwhile, Sweig adds, Cuba is strengthening ties with global powers like Brazil, as well as the Catholic Church, as the Castro administration seeks to open up new economic and social spaces for its citizens.

We've passed the fifty-year mark of the breakdown of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States. Where do we stand now? Is normalizing relations even remotely on the table on either side?

Let me start by talking about three geographical points on the map that are relevant to the answer. In Washington, the Obama administration, consistent with the approach of the Bush administration, has made a political decision to subordinate foreign policy and national interest-based decisions to domestic politics with respect to its Cuba policy. There is a bipartisan group of members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate--who represent Florida, a state where there are many swing votes that deliver the electoral votes for any president. Those individuals not only deliver votes, but they deliver campaign finance, and generally make a lot of noise, and that combination has persuaded the White House that reelection is more of a priority than taking on the heavy lifting to set the United States on the path of normalization with Cuba for now.

"Brazil is clearly stepping into a space where the United States should be, and the United States has made a decision to watch as that happens."

The second point is what's happening in Cuba. It's not realistic to expect the United States to undertake a series of unilateral moves toward normalization; it needs a willing partner. I believe we have one in Havana but have failed to read the signals. Raul Castro has now been in office since the beginning of 2008. Raul holds the reins on both foreign policy and domestic policy, and, domestically, the politics of implementing a fairly wide range of economic and political and social reforms are his priority. In a deal that was coordinated with the help of the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain, he released all of the political prisoners in Cuba. He also is taking a number of steps that imply a major rewriting of the social contract in Cuba to shrink the size of the state and give Cuban individuals more freedom--economically, especially, but also in terms of speech--than we've seen in the last fifty years. He has privatized the residential real estate and car market[s], expanded much-needed agrarian reform, lifted caps on salaries, and greatly expanded space for small businesses. He also is moving to deal with corruption and to prepare the groundwork for a great deal more foreign investment. He's moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make, albeit under the rubric of a one-party system. There's a broad range of cooperation--neighborhood security in the Gulf of Mexico, as Cuba has just started drilling for oil, counternarcotics, and natural disasters--between the two countries that is still not happening, and that gives me the impression that the United States has been unwilling to take "yes" for an answer and respond positively to steps taken by Cuba.

The third geographic part of the story is south Florida. When they're polled, the majority of Cuban-Americans say that the embargo has failed, and support lifting the travel ban or loosening the embargo or some steps along that continuum of liberalization and normalization. The one most significant step that Obama did take when he took office was to eliminate the restriction on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. Cuban-Americans are now voting with their feet. If you go to the Miami airport, you will see thirty, forty flights to Cuba a week just out of Miami. Cuban-Americans are now investing in their families' small businesses on the island. The politics of this are strange because we are told by the Obama administration that we can't rock the boat of the Cuban-American vote, but those very voters are in fact demonstrating that they support a radically different set of policies than, in fact, the Obama administration has supported.

The ongoing case of USAID contractor Alan Gross (AP) has stoked tensions between the United States and Cuba. At the heart of the matter is the U.S. democracy promotion program that authorized Gross' travel to Cuba. What impact does this case have on U.S.-Cuba relations?

Precisely because we have no overarching framework for diplomacy in place and no political will to establish it for now, the Alan Gross case casts a huge shadow over U.S.-Cuban relations. The heart of the issue is the context in which those [pro-democracy] programs were being implemented. We have a full-blown economic embargo with extra-territorial dimensions that are felt in the banking and finance world--a very comprehensive and well-enforced sanctions program. The democracy programs sound very mom and apple pie--USAID has them around the world, its officials will tell you. But having them in Cuba is an extraordinary provocation. They were inherited from the previous administration's concept of regime change, and under Obama, they remain largely intact. The programs are purposely kept secret from the American public. There is no public information about the private and not-for-profit subcontractors in the United States and around the world, and Cuban institutions and individuals who may be targets of the programs are likewise not told they are part of such U.S. government programs. The democracy promotion programs have been deliberately politicized in order to provoke, and they have succeeded in provoking.

What's key is the context. There's been no real diplomacy; there's no negotiating framework that I've seen for a very long period of time, and again, that has to do with domestic politics. It's very hard to understand otherwise why this guy's still in jail. The United States has repeatedly asked the Cuban government to release Gross unilaterally, with no commitments on our end. Asking for unilateral gestures, having rebuffed or ignored or failed to read the signals from Cuba, has created this impasse. Having said that, there can be a diplomatic, humanitarian solution, and I see no value to keeping Gross in jail and hope he will be released as soon as possible. But we will need real diplomacy and a framework for negotiating a range of issues both countries care about.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff paid a visit to Cuba recently, and it looks like Cuba's trying to formulate ties with an influential, rising Latin American power. How does this burgeoning relationship between Cuba and Brazil affect Cuba's relationship with the United States.?

Brazil is a regional power and a global power; it plays in a number of spaces well beyond Latin America. In the last couple of years it undertook some major investments, and those investments will grow in Cuba--in infrastructure, in agriculture, in perhaps energy as well, and others. Brazil is clearly stepping into a space where the United States should be, and the United States has made a decision to watch as that happens.

How does Cuba's human rights situation complicate the relationship between those two countries?

It doesn't seem to be complicating it at all. Rousseff--given her own history of having spent three years in jail and being tortured in the 1970s and having worked to make human rights more of a domestic and foreign policy--her presidency has quite a bit of standing with respect to talking to any government, including the Cuban government, about human rights. She was criticized by her own public, especially in the media, a great deal for choosing to have those discussions with Cuba privately. But I would suggest that having a public, browbeating, rhetorical approach has almost always backfired for major heads of state when dealing with Cuba, and if you look at the success that the Catholic Church and the Spanish government had around the political prisoner release, that success derived from a basic fundamental degree of respect, cooperation, and engagement as the framework for the relationship.

The Pope is set to make a highly anticipated visit to Cuba in March. What's the significance of this visit?

Pope John Paul II went to Cuba in 1998, and that was very significant because that was just a few years after a new constitution in Cuba had affirmed the right of religious believers to hold senior positions in government. In the decade-plus that's transpired since, the Catholic Church under Archbishop Jaime Ortega has become the most important provider of social services outside of the state. It has started its own business school; it has opened space for itself and for others for publications, opinion, and debate; it has worked in concert with the Cuban government, especially with Raul Castro, on a very nationalist project of building a more open society in Cuba. This Pope is a different person than Pope John Paul, and it's highly anticipated, but he's coming at a time when already there is substantial change under way in that country. The visit will help the Cuban Catholic Church create space for itself and continue to create space for itself, and signal to the Cuban government that it's an institution that can be relied upon to support the kinds of reforms that the government itself wants to make happen.

It's important to note that the Pope's going to Mexico on this trip, and Mexico's population of practicing Catholics is proportionally much bigger than Cuba's. In Cuba, the syncretic religions are widely practiced. The Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution, but it would be a mistake to think of Cuba the way we do Mexico, as a predominantly Catholic society.

Raul Castro held the First National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party last month. What was he hoping to accomplish?

This conference was preceded by a Party congress in April 2011, and you have to think about both in tandem. The biggest take-away from the Party conference was the formalization of term limits for senior officials in the Cuban government, both elected and appointed. That's a very significant step forward in terms of political reform, given that many of the top leaders in the politburo are over sixty-five and have been working in those positions or other senior positions for their entire careers. It's also an important sign to the junior people who are building their political careers that they're not going to be permanent.

"Political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves."

The broader consequences of the congress and the conference were for Raul to continue a process that has been pretty slow and difficult of building a consensus among the longtime beneficiaries of the status quo that the status quo needs to change. One key thing for the Communist Party is to get the Communist Party out of day-to-day government. The party is supposed to be a political party, sort of ideological ballast, but it isn't supposed to be running ministries or having the kind of major role bureaucratically and politically that it's had over the last fifty years.

The other piece is to institute accountability and transparency within the institutions of governance themselves. That process means a radical overhaul of the way things have happened for the last fifty years.

How strong is the Cuban society's desire to move beyond the one-party system?

It's very strong. Public opinion is complicated because on the one hand, Cubans want change and they want much more space--economic space, speech space. I would say political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves with the wonderful education they have and to run businesses and to have the state get out of the way, while continuing to provide the basic social services that the entire population has benefited from and gotten so accustomed to.