Dupes or not, it is time to stop covert ops in Cuba

By Stephen Wilkinson

At a conservative estimate the U.S. Government has spent at least $390 million since 1996 on trying to subvert the Cuban government by covert means. That is the startling truth if Fulton Armstrong, a senior advisor on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is to be believed.

Armstrong, who had three years’ experience as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chief investigator into operations run by the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, has called on the Obama administration to stop wasting money on a hopelessly corrupt and forlorn project.

Alan Gross – Victim of USAID?

The subversion programmes against Cuba “have an especially problematic heritage, including embezzlement, mismanagement, and systemic politicization,” he says in an article headlined: ‘Time to clean up U.S. regime-change programs in Cuba’, published by The Miami Herald on Christmas Day, a timing that perhaps explains why the revelations have not had wider coverage than they might otherwise have.

Armstrong’s frankness is illuminating: Having worked on the Cuba issue on the U.S. National Security Council during the Clinton administration, he confesses that even programmes hailed as successes were in fact fabricated or grossly exaggerated.  Interestingly, he cites the alleged creation of a network of ‘independent libraries’ in Cuba as one example. This was a particularly high profile campaign that attracted huge publicity, being reported in the New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers across the United States.

However, there is more. Armstrong adds that while his oversight committee’s mandate was to ensure that the funds (some $20 million a year up to 2009 and $45 million in since then) are used effectively and lawfully, both the State Department and USAID refused to cooperate.  They “fought us at every turn, refusing to divulge even basic information” he says.

“The programs did not involve our Intelligence Community, but the secrecy surrounding them, the clandestine tradecraft (including the use of advanced encryption technologies) and the deliberate concealment of the U.S. hand, had all the markings of an intelligence covert operation,” he says.

Even more interesting are the facts he reveals related to Alan Gross a USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in 2011 for carrying out subversive acts after being caught distributing satellite receiver equipment and wifi internet networking hardware without a permit. Gross’s case has become a media cause celebre in the United States, but Armstrong has this to say:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release. When a covert operator working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric, throws more money at the compromised program, and refuses to talk,” he writes.

“We did not know who Alan P. Gross was —indeed, the State Department vehemently denied he was theirs after his arrest, and even some of our diplomats in Havana thought he was working for CIA,” says Armstrong

Gross in fact had a $585,000 contract with USAID and made five visits to Cuba. He has said that he was ‘duped’ but Armstrong has scant sympathy for him and none at all for his minders who, it seems, hung their ‘man in Havana’ out to dry:

“We confirmed that State and USAID had no policy in place to brief individuals conducting these secret operations that they are not legal in Cuba, nor that U.S. law does not allow unregistered foreign agents to travel around the country providing satellite gear, wide-area WiFi hotspots, encryption and telephony equipment and other cash-value assistance.

“Rhetoric and actions that prolong the prison stay of an innocent American apparently duped into being a pawn in the U.S. government’s 50-year effort to achieve regime change in Cuba are counterproductive. It’s time to clean up the regime-change programs and negotiate Alan P. Gross’s release,” he concludes.

For those who have known about these operations for some time, Armstrong’s forthright words are a breath of fresh air, but he fails to mention another stark fact that is even more reason for the U.S. to stop wasting taxpayers’ money:  Gross was easily caught.

The truth is that the network of dissidents that is supplied and financed by these operations is deeply infiltrated by Cuban double agents. The Cuban government knows exactly who are behind the projects. Whether or not their agents are ‘duped’ or knowing participants, the likelihood is that there will be more cases such as that of Alan Gross, unless the U.S. changes tack.

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