Alan Gross smuggled a special SIM card into Cuba to try to prevent Cuban authorities from detecting satellite phone transmissions, the Associated Press reported on Feb. 12.
The AP’s Desmond Butler wrote:
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.
The AP said USAID denied that its contractors perform covert work. Mark Lopes, a deputy assistant administrator, told the AP:
Nothing about USAID’s Cuba programs is covert or classified in any way. We simply carry out activities in a discreet manner to ensure the greatest possible safety of all those involved.
The AP story made it clear that Gross, according to his own trip reports, was trying to hide what he was doing in Cuba. And in case anyone confused that with simply being “discreet,” as USAID would like you to believe, Butler spelling out the definition of “covert.”
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.”
It’s unclear how Gross acquired the “discreet” SIM card. Anonymous sources told Butler that “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.”
USAID spokesman Drew Bailey told Butler that the agency did not help Gross obtain equipment.
Ernesto Hernández Busto, editor of the influential blog Penúltimos Días, consulted an expert – also anonymous – who doubts the AP’s claim about a special SIM card. He quotes the source as saying:
Short answer — don’t think the article is correct. There’s a lot of factual errors in the article. Seems the reporter didn’t check with a technical expert on how cell phones work… The way the technology works – what is transmitted to the cell phone network is 2 pieces of information, the SIM card ID # and the ID # of the phone. Even if the sim card were changed in some way, the cell phone # would still be transmitted.
To be able to not be detected — one would need a completely different phone and very different type of SIM CARD. Don’t see how a US AID contractor would be able to get his hands on such a unit. They likely aren’t available in the open market at all.
It’s likely not just a chip, but also a very different cell phone that uses a military satelite network. A US AID contractor wouldn’t have access to such technology. Let alone, he wouldn’t have the security clearance to use such a device.
Seems too far fetched for me…
US Govt officials usually when they travel use normal phones with normal sim cards (issued in the US). However the phones have special encryption that allows the voice and data to be protected.
It’s all about the phone and what network it is using. I see it far fetched for Gross to be able to get the security clearance required to get a device able to connect to the separate military/intelligence satellite network.
Hernández said he contacted Butler, who told him he stands by his story.
Update: A reader commenting on The Cuban Triangle blog defended the AP story. The reader wrote:
In his attack on the reporting of Desmond Butler of the AP, Ernesto Hernandez Busto argues that the BGANs Gross was deploying were perfectly ordinary, and quotes an anonymous expert who says that only a special cell phone using a military network would have the capability Butler described, and it’s not plausible that Gross had access to such highly classified technology.
This expert is just wrong. There is such a thing as a discrete SIM card that has exactly the capabilities Butler described. It has nothing to do with cell phones or military satellite networks. It fits a regular BGAN terminal, and appears to only be available to government purchasers. See this description (esp. slides 16-18) of how it works in a sales presentation prepared for government agencies. This special SIM card stops the BGAN from reporting its GPS location to the satellite; instead, it reports the location within a 100-300 kilometer radius.
Hernandez Busto also claims that all Gross was doing was creating a “BGAN Private Network” as described here, but in fact that is something completely different, as a careful reading of the linked page makes clear.
Phil Peters, a former State Department official and creator of The Cuban Triangle blog, criticized USAID for its “bland generalities.”
Considering that Gross’ trial is ended, Cuba knew what he was doing, and USAID insists that there is nothing covert or classified about its operations, I think more information would be helpful here. USAID’s m.o. is a subject of legitimate public policy debate, of interest to both fans and skeptics of USAID’s activities. It is strange for the U.S. government to allow it to proceed with abundant information provided by Cuba, some leaked information reported by AP, and only bland generalities from USAID.
Ernesto’s questions deserve answers, as do others. Such as whether USAID has a policy about its operatives using private American citizens and organizations as cover, without informing them, for activities that could land them in the same trouble in which Mr. Gross finds himself now.
Butler’s story gave new details about the quantity of equipment Gross helped bring in to Cuba. He 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.
Peters said it’s difficult to understand what Gross meant when he said he felt “duped” and “used.”
His modus operandi seems to have been to hook up with a Jewish group traveling to Cuba, present himself as a member of a humanitarian group, enlist some members to carry some equipment, and gather it all up once everyone cleared Customs. In so doing he put those Americans in danger, and if he used the name of a real humanitarian group, he abused that group as well.
This is dirty pool. If USAID and its operatives are going to put Americans at risk when they are traveling to Cuba for religious fellowship or humanitarian projects, it owes them a chance to weigh the risks before it uses them for cover.
I still wonder how this all began. How was it decided that Cuba’s Jewish community needed better Internet access, as opposed to other assistance? And how was it decided that this was the best way to provide it?
Anya Landau French, director of the New America Foundation’s U.S.–Cuba Policy Initiative and the editor of The Havana Note, also questioned the U.S. strategy. She wrote:
USAID and State Department officials commenting for Butler’s story insist that 1) USAID’s work in Cuba isn’t about regime change (though it’s funded under a U.S. law that explicitly seeks regime change in Cuba), 2) U.S. assistance is not covert in nature, it’s simply “discreet” to protect people (though U.S. grantees aren’t required to disclose their connection to the U.S. government unless asked, and Cuban counter-intelligence penetrates the programs), and [in other comments], 3) Alan Gross broke no laws in Cuba (such as the law against collaborating with a foreign government’s regime change program).
If USAID isn’t seeking regime change in Cuba, then why doesn’t the administration fund these programs out of general aid accounts, rather than continuing them under the authority of a U.S. statute explicitly seeking regime change in Cuba? And if the programs aren’t covert – which if they were would imply at a minimum that that they lack proper congressional oversight and that the wrong agency (USAID, rather than the CIA) is carrying them out – why not adopt a strict rule that any project grantees (or subgrantees) must disclose their connection to the U.S. government in all contacts with Cubans?
Gal Beckerman, of the Jewish Daily Forward, wrote:
Ultimately, the big takeaway from the (AP) piece is the disconnect between how USAID perceives its work in a place like Cuba and how it is actually received by the authorities in that country. Officials of the American agency might have thought that they were doing nothing subversive by funding the efforts of Gross, but from the perspective of Havana, any attempt to provide unfettered access to the outside world is seen as dissident activity meant to undermine the regime.
If you are operating in a place like Cuba … any attempt to promote democracy … is going to be perceived as an existential threat. Ultimately, it seems Gross simply fell into this gaping paradox, a hole in which he is now stuck.
Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington Office on Latin America, called for a new approach.
Policy makers ought to re-think what can and should sensibly be done to promote democratic reform and political opening in Cuba. Reducing the hostility between our countries and increasing contact and dialogue would be the most obvious—and least expensive—steps. If the United States wishes to continue investing in programs directed at Cuba, efforts should focus on educational, cultural, and scientific exchange programs run through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. These programs should be de-politicized, so that they can actually support the changes that are taking place in Cuba. The few effective current activities—humanitarian support for the families of prisoners, some non-political training programs for journalists, and others—could be carried out under other U.S. government auspices and without the taint that lurks behind the existing programs.
On Feb. 29, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was unapologetic, telling a House committee that the imprisonment of Gross was “deplorable.” She said the American “deserves to come home.”