Secrecy, politics at heart of Cuba project
THURSDAY, JANUARY 17, 2013
Secrecy, politics at heart of Cuba
Alan Gross memo: Internet in a backpackU.S. officials stressed the
importance of secrecy during a 2008 meeting with a Maryland contractor that
had been chosen to carry out a new democracy project in Cuba, according to
a confidential memo (download 8-page
The project wasn�t considered classified, however, because the U.S. Agency
for International Development wanted to create the illusion of transparency.
Development Alternatives Inc., of Bethesda, Md., won the USAID contract on
Aug. 14, 2008, and quickly hired Alan Gross, who was later arrested in Cuba
while working on the project.
DAI wrote the confidential memo to summarize what was said during a private
Aug. 26, 2008, meeting with top USAID officials.
During the meeting, DAI learned that the U.S. government had �five to seven
different transition plans� for Cuba. DAI would �not be asked to write a
Instead, the contractor would carry out a daring plan to set up satellite
Internet connections under the nose of Cuban state security agents.
USAID promised to protect the identities of contractors and their
associates in and out of Cuba. �The program is not pressing (and will not
press) them to disclose networks,� said the memo, which DAI filed in
federal court on Jan. 15 as part of its reply to a $60 million lawsuit
filed by the Gross family in November 2012.
The memo stressed the unusual nature of the Cuba program:
The project was not classified because USAID wanted to send the message
that this is a transparent process. Also, a classified project imposes
significant security, documentation burdens and delays on all its
USAID wanted no delays and was eager to move ahead. The memo said:
This Administration expects immediate results from this program, definitely
That deadline likely had something to do with the departure of George W.
Bush, a strong supporter of USAID�s programs in Cuba, and the arrival of
Barack Obama, who was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
The DAI memo summed up a top USAID official's view of the political
- This project has received and will continue to warrant intense
political scrutiny and pressure for results and fiscal integrity.
- Target populations for grants are those NGO reaching out to
pro-democracy and human rights change agents and those Cubans with a
different vision for their country.
- USAID is not telling Cubans how or why they need a democratic
transition, but rather, the Agency wants to provide the technology and
means for communicating the spark which could benefit the population.
- This project will be difficult to implement because an �ossified�
Cuban government prevents change, and because most government resources go
to its police and control machinery.
- The Cuba program attracts significant attention and scrutiny by US
Congress, where some support and others question existing activities.
- There is, of course, skepticism on this project, influential political
and civic leaders have the perception that this program is paying too much
for work that could be significantly less expensive through other contract
or award options.
The challenge, the memo said, would be finding �creativity to implement
this project in the face of opposition from the Cuban State...while
protecting the security of participants and change agents.�
The project was entitled �Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program,�
or CDCPP. The memo gave explicit instructions on how the initiative should
be described if any lawmakers should ask about it.
Explanation to the Hill regarding CDCPP: to empower pro-democracy,
pro-human rights and those looking for alternative visions for the island.
The program seeks to expand the reach of their ideas and activities, to
build and fortify networks and their capacity to act, and to increase the
flow of communication to and around the island.
That vague description gave no clues to the project�s clandestine nature,
but the DAI memo was clear:
CDCPP is not an analytical project; it�s an operational activity. USAID
approval is needed for everything. We cannot freelance.
The memo said USAID picked DAI in part because of its international reach.
USAID would like to tap into the global network of contacts that DAI has in
terms of democracy promotion...
Planes flying in to Cuba from Europe, Central America and the Caribbean
look �less conspicuous.�
Grant limits to non-U.S. NGOs �have no funding ceiling,� the memo added.
Cuban security apparatus is very strong so non-US NGOs should be vetted.
The DAI memo spelled out what the contractor should say in response to any
inquiries from the public or the media:
Yes, we have been awarded CDCPP and we are working with USAID on
discussions, but the project is not fully operational yet. Please refer
other questions to (redacted) of USAID.
The memo said USAID stressed:
DAI said that meant:
We must not post anything on our website or issue a press release on the
DAI wound up picking Gross to handle �new media� - the satellite Internet
connections - described as the �most sensitive component in a very
And during four trips to Cuba, Gross established three Internet connections
- one in Havana, two outside the capital.
DAI paid him $258,274. He requested more money to continue the project and
was promised $332,334, which would have brought his subcontract total to
$590,608, an October 2009 memo shows (download 6-page
In late November 2009, Gross returned to Cuba a fifth time. Cuban
authorities arrested him on Dec. 3, 2009, and accused him of crimes against
the socialist state.
DAI said it paid Gross �the full amount owed under the Subcontract for
That evidently means Gross would have been entitled to just $65,132.80.
That would bring his total payments to $323,406.80, not the full $590,608
he could have collected if he were not arrested.
Gross called his effort �Para La Isla� - For The Island. According to a
proposal (download 13-page
he wrote after his first four trips to Cuba:
Efforts to date under the Para-La-Isla (PLI) Pilot have been focused on
establishing and operationalizing 3 sites on the Island through which
target group members now have greater access to information than they had
Activities in support of these efforts included the selection,
configuration, logistics and training on the use of specific information
and communication technologies (ICTs). Primary objectives of the Pilot
dealt with the efficacy of the technologies deployed and the contractor�s
demonstration that these technologies work.
In the Sept. 17, 2009, memo, Gross proposed six additional trips to Cuba
that his company would carry out from Nov. 1, 2009, to Oct. 31, 2010.
The memo stated:
Activities initially developed under this pilot at the first site in the
capital city have been replicated and expanded to two other target group
member communities in the provinces. These activities can be expanded to
other identified target groups.
That likely means that Gross and DAI had envisioned taking the program
beyond the Jewish community where Gross installed his first Internet
Gross had supplied his Cuban collaborators with Broadband Global Area
Network equipment, BGAN for short. The equipment, which fits into a
backpack, can be used to establish a broadband Internet connection from
anywhere in the world. Users can also make phone calls, send e-mail
messages and set up a WiFi network.
During follow-up visits, Gross wanted to learn how Cubans were using the
BGAN equipment, increase the number of users at each site and boost
security so they wouldn�t be caught.
He considered it �highly probable� that state security agents would detect
the satellite connections in the provinces. He wrote:
Radio Frequency activity in the Capitol City is more difficult to monitor
than in the provinces because of an already existing level of RF congestion
(e.g., from government, commercial sites, embassies, etc.). Therefore,
monitoring and detection in the use of ICTs is less likely to occur in the
Capitol City. Conversely and because there is little RF congestion in the
provinces, monitoring and detection of ICT devices is highly probable.
Even limited use of BGANs and wireless networks will be monitored and
detected because Island government technicians routinely "sniff"
neighborhoods with their handheld devices in search of ham-radio and
satellite dishes. While wireless computer networks (intranet) are not
likely to cause any problem if detected, discovery of BGAN usage for
Internet access would be catastrophic.
Gross planned to install special SIM cards in the three BGAN systems that
would disable their GPS tracking feature and make them more difficult to
detect. He wrote:
In order to improve and supplement security tactics and protocols already
in place, the contractor will use an alternative SIM card, called
"discreet" SIM card, that will increase the level of technical security
with each of the 3 BGANs deployed. Discreet SIM cards impede the ability to
track or detect specific aspects of non-terrestrial transmitted signals,
regarding location and IP identification of transmission. This is
- Masking the IP address of the BGAN, in case some entity is able to
"hack" into the transmission at either end, and
- Masking the signal so that its GPS location cannot be pinpointed
within 400 km.
During the last three of the six trips that Gross planned, he had hoped to
supply �up to an additional three prospective new target group sites� with
what he described as �Telco-in-a-Bag.� He wrote:
Beneficiaries will utilize this equipment to support activities that are
consistent with CDP program. A standard configuration will include:
- Hardware and software (e.g., computers, modems)
- Content sharing devices (e.g. iPods, flash drives, smartphones)
- Activation and Service (BGAN and mobile)
- Training on the use of this equipment will be similar to the first 3
sites (excluding training on Ruckus Wireless equipment)
- Local Technical Support to be provided by local contractor staff for
trouble-shooting, technical assistance, maintenance, etc.
Gross said each �Telco-In-A-Bag� would include:
- Unlocked SmartPhones
- Sim Card
- 2GB miniSD Expansion Memory Card
- iPod 120 GB
- Composite AV Cable for use with iPod & TV
- RF Modulator for TVs, Coaxial Cable
- BGAN satellite modem (1 T&T, 2 Nera)
- Discreet BGAN Sim card
- Wireless Router
- Surge Protector (3-outlet) & Adapters
- Polycom Communicator for Notebook
- WD External Hard Drive, 500 GB
- USB Memory Stick (4 GB Flash Drive)�
The memo said that Gross and DAI would reach �an amicable agreement on how
to resolve or settle� any differences if forces beyond their control
prevented the project�s completion.
But there was no amicable agreement after Gross was arrested and Gross and
his wife, Judy, sued DAI and USAID.
On Jan. 15, DAI asked a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit. Lawyers for
DAI wrote (download 57-page
The Cuban government, reprehensibly, has sought to manipulate its detention
of Mr. Gross to strengthen its hand in dealings with the United States.
This has included seeking to exchange Mr. Gross�s release for the U.S.
Government�s release of five Cuban spies. As Congresswoman Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen observed, "[t]he Cuban dictatorship is clearly using Mr. Gross
to strengthen its grip on power and gain leverage with the United States."
Against this backdrop, Plaintiffs have filed the present tort suit seeking
monetary damages from the Defendants. The fundamental premise of the
Complaint is that Plaintiffs may bring tort claims against the Defendants
based on the tragic harm that has befallen Mr. Gross.
This premise is wrong. Plaintiffs� allegations are inextricably intertwined
with Federal laws and policies that bar Plaintiffs� claims, and also fail
to state a claim on which the Court can grant relief. Plaintiffs� claims
must be dismissed for eight distinct reasons, any one of which would
The DAI lawyers - Steven J. Weber, Sarah M. Graves and Matthew J. Gaziano -
also said that the company did not have duty to protect Gross. They said he
was an independent contractor who should have done more to avoid arrest.
...the Subcontract explicitly states "[t]he Subcontractor shall take all
reasonable precautions to prevent damage, injury, or loss to all persons
performing services hereunder, the Work, all materials and equipment
utilized therein, and all other property at the site of the Work
and adjacent thereto.� � 7.3. Thus, � 410 is inapplicable on its face, and
the general rule restricting liability to independent contractor employees
In sum, DAI had no duty to protect Mr. Gross from the type of injury he
suffered, and no exception to this rule is applicable given his admitted
status as an employee of an independent contractor. Whether his injury was
foreseeable is a factual question that does not change this analysis.
The Cuban government - not DAI - are ultimately to blame for any harm done
to Gross and his wife, the contractor�s lawyers said.
DAI deeply regrets that Mr. and Mrs. Gross have suffered harm due to the
actions of the Cuban government while Mr. Gross was undertaking activities
in Cuba to further the U.S.Government�s foreign policy. For the reasons
stated above, however, the Complaint against DAI must be dismissed in its
entirety and with prejudice.
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