Open Door Policy

Can the State Department's ambitious new plan to subvert autocratic regimes online actually succeed?

Last year, when Internet users in 12 authoritarian states tried to navigate to the social networking sites we take for granted in the West, they encountered the usual government firewall blocking their access. But there was a twist. Many of them also saw an advertisement alerting them to the fact they could download free tools to circumvent this censorship. Almost half a million users did just that.

It wasn't the work of the hacking group Anonymous or a tech-savvy democracy activist; instead, the organization funding the campaign was none other than the U.S. Department of State. And it was being rolled out in a string of countries, like Bahrain, Egypt, and Vietnam, that are usually regarded as U.S. partners.

This was not an isolated incident. The rapid growth of online activity has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for subtly undermining repressive regimes -- without boots on the ground and, so far, with only a reasonably modest financial commitment. And the State Department has dived head first into this new frontier.

This online activism is not as narrowly targeted as subversive measures from years past, such as Western radio broadcasts beamed into countries under repressive rule. Whereas these broadcasts only offered the opportunity to passively receive another government's perspective on the world, a free Internet allows people everywhere to read whatever they want and express their views without fear of harassment ... theoretically.

U.S. policymakers have put great stock in the transformative power of Internet freedom. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, these tools will be used "to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons, [and] to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up."

This new tech-savvy approach to democracy promotion has been taken up by the U.S. government with characteristic American zeal. Alec Ross, Clinton's senior advisor for innovation, framed the great conflict of the 21st century as between open and closed systems. The United States, he said, stood "for openness, with an open Internet at its core." Congress has also lent its support, allocating the State Department and USAID a total of $76 million from 2008 to 2011 for Internet freedom activities.

Not everyone, however, is convinced. Evgeny Morozov offers one blistering critique: In his book, The Net Delusion, he points to the overwhelming costs of truly freeing the web, and the risks to activists who put too much faith in circumvention tools that can never be made failsafe. Moreover, he argues that the Western focus on freeing the Internet could have the perverse effect of driving even more restrictive policies from authoritarian regimes.

Before settling on a position though, consider what the State Department is actually doing. The department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) is at the vanguard of this effort. Funding for DRL's more subversive work was originally a Republican initiative, with strong backing from Falun Gong-linked groups like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Not surprisingly, its initial focus was on China. It has since been substantially expanded to other authoritarian regimes, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring and the subsequent attempts by governments in the region to both squelch and monitor Internet activism.

As a happy example of bipartisan consensus in Washington, the State Department has managed to secure a steady stream of congressional funding. About half of these funds have been spent on developing technologies to help activists circumvent direct government Internet censorship, and the other half on protecting websites and blogs under attack. Most of DRL's work is outsourced to non-governmental organizations that prefer to keep their funding on the down-low, due to the sensitive nature of their work. However, there are several projects that have been made public.

The so-called "Internet in a suitcase," which was developed by the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, is one prominent example. It is a type of mesh network that aims to allow activists to continue communicating -- ideally anonymously -- even when a government tries to shut down the Internet, as happened in several Arab Spring countries during the recent uprisings.

Another interesting project is a "panic button" called InTheClear, which is in early Beta release. This mobile application aims to allow individuals to instantly and comprehensively erase the contents of their phone, as well as send out pre-written text messages to trusted contacts. That's a handy tool for an activist suddenly arrested by security forces, or a journalist with confidential information recorded on his or her phone.

These programs are explicitly aimed at undermining other governments' censorship efforts, raising a series of complex legal and diplomatic questions. However, the State Department has pushed full-steam ahead, focusing on the loftier justifications for its actions. "Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks," Clinton said in a January 2010 speech on Internet freedom. "These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right, 'to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.'"

Iran, in particular, is a hot spot for subversive diplomacy at the State Department. Given the long history of animosity between the two countries, the subversion is fairly blatant. When the State Department opened its new "Virtual Embassy Tehran" -- which was aimed at "bringing information and alternative viewpoints to the Iranian people" according to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland -- in December 2011, it was blocked from view in Iran almost immediately. The State Department, when asked about this obstacle, said it believed Iranians would still be able to access the website through other means, presumably using the tools promoted by the State's circumvention campaign.

The Iran desk at the State Department also has two full-time bloggers working in Farsi who manage its three main Farsi social media sites (Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) that try to push critical messages of the regime to Iranians online, like President Barack Obama's recent statement upon the Iranian holiday of Nowruz. These and other more traditional democracy promotion efforts were the bread and butter of the Iran desk's engagement activities until 2010, when its direction was significantly altered by a $10 million congressional earmark that had to be spent on Internet freedom in Iran. In addition to the old approaches, it is now involved in three types of activities: circumvention tool development; secure communications and platforms (for example, hosting websites that are victims of Denial of Service attacks); and digital safety training for Iranian activists. In other words, it's moving away from simple messaging to efforts to directly empower Iranian activists.

Subversive diplomacy is also not only aimed at undermining authoritarian regimes. State's Digital Outreach Team has been targeting individuals and organizations online since 2006. What began as an effort to promote soft messages about the United States among the Arabic blogosphere soon morphed into a much more tightly focused outfit dedicated to countering the rhetoric spewed by extremists online.

This is a small shop compared to the sprawling U.S. government agencies that work to gather intelligence online. The team of 11 bloggers and one manager -- who openly acknowledge they are employed by the State Department -- work in Arabic, Urdu, and Somali as a sort of counter propaganda unit, posting in comment threads on sites like Al Jazeera and the BBC, and disproving conspiracy theories. For example, they have shot down rumors circulating in Pakistan that Vice President Dick Cheney had ordered the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. They also work to highlight the most negative and hypocritical sides of extremists -- such as Taliban bomb attacks on girls' schools, and reports that the Yemeni-American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki had solicited prostitutes. It has also been involved in the production of videos such as this one, which ridicules Osama bin Laden for being nowhere to be found during the Arab Spring.

Reviews on its effectiveness have so far been mixed. A Stanford University study analyzing its work concluded that "the evidence points to a lack of impact" for the Digital Outreach Team's work. However, the study also noted that the program's intended audience "is among the lurkers on blogs and Websites, who leave no evidence of their reactions," hampering attempts to accurately gauge the initiative's influence.

While the State Department will certainly tweak its efforts at subversive diplomacy for maximum effect, the epic dimensions that officials have used to frame this agenda suggest that it will be more than a fleeting diplomatic objective. The struggle will be a long one: The State Department's $76 million is always going to be a drop in the ocean compared to the mighty censorship resources of a country like China, and the cat and mouse game between Internet freedom activists and repressive regimes will have mostly imperfect markers of success.

But despite the inevitable setbacks, the State Department has taken the first step to addressing the new realities of activism through its subversive diplomacy program. Pro-democracy activists in authoritarian states are going to continue their move online, and repressive regimes are going to use every available means to monitor, censor, and harass them. Extremists will also continue to spout drivel online and do their best to bring in vulnerable new recruits. But it's the American way to give those working for freedom -- whether on the ground or online -- a fighting chance.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


Power Grab

President Obama's real constitutional overreach was Libya, not health care.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the onset of U.S. military engagement in the Libyan civil war. While the verdict is still out on the long-term effects of the conflict for U.S. interests in the region, it's closer to home where one can point to the war's greater lasting impact -- namely in further increasing the power of the executive branch to wage war without congressional authorization. But don't expect to hear much about that issue on the campaign trail this election year. Rather the erosion of congressional oversight of the executive branch's war-making responsibilities has been something of a bipartisan endeavor -- and one that is unlikely to end any time soon.

It might seem like a bit of ancient history now, but one of the more creative arguments to come out of the U.S. military intervention in Libya was the Obama administration's assertion that the war did not actually represent "hostilities." Indeed, according to the president's argument to Congress, U.S. operations in Libya "do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops" -- thus making them something less than war. On the surface this appears patently absurd. The United States was flying planes over Libyan air space and dropping bombs. Missiles were being fired from off-shore. An American military officer (Adm. James Stavridis) commanded the NATO effort. There were reports of forward air controllers on the ground spotting targets for U.S. bombers. In all, NATO planes flew more than 26,000 sorties in Libya, nearly 10,000 of which were strike missions. By what possible definition is this not considered "hostilities"?

As it turns out the ambiguity over whether the war represented "hostilities" is one codified in U.S. law -- namely the War Powers Resolution (WPR). Under the provisions of the WPR the President was required to notify Congress within 48 hours of the beginning of U.S. military involvement. He then had 60 days to receive authorization from Congress and if he failed to do he would have 30 days to end the fighting. (Of course, if U.S. military actions do not rise to the level of "hostilities," then the president does not have to go through this rigmarole and receive congressional approval.)

Now on the surface, such an elastic view of what the word hostilities means is hardly unusual. Indeed, it is rather par for the course in discussions of the War Powers Resolution. In 1975, the Ford administration claimed that "hostilities" only refers to a scenario in which U.S. forces are "actively engaged in exchanges of fire with opposing units." Similar efforts at defining down hostilities were attempted by the Carter, Reagan, and Clinton administrations when they sought to use military force. Still, these generally were in reference to peacekeeping missions like in Lebanon and Bosnia -- not offensive operations like those waged in Libya.

In a political vacuum, Obama's stance on "hostilities" in Libya might represent the traditional push and pull of executive-legislative branch disagreements about presidential war-fighting prerogatives.

But of course, on this issue we are far from being in a political vacuum. Obama's broadening of executive power comes with the backdrop of the George W. Bush administration's efforts to expand the president's ability to wage war. Indeed, the position taken by the Obama administration bears uncomfortable similarities to the one taken by John Yoo when he served at the Justice Department and argued -- in the wake of 9/11 -- that the Constitution granted the president practically unquestioned executive power to wage war. Yet, even Bush sought congressional approval for military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama didn't bother to do the same for Libya. In addition, Obama also overruled the opinion of his own Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) on the question of whether the president must abide by the War Powers Resolution in regard to the Libyan intervention. The OLC said he did; the White House assembled legal opinions that said he didn't -- and the latter view won out. As Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University, noted at the time, "Mr. Obama's decision to disregard that office's opinion [the OLC] and embrace the White House counsel's view is undermining a key legal check on arbitrary presidential power."

So at a time when the door has been opened rather wide on unaccountable war-waging by the executive branch -- with minimal legislative checks and balances -- the Obama administration has opened it even further. What is perhaps most surprising is that it is being promulgated by a president who pledged as a candidate to put an end to such practices.

As Ackerman said to me, Obama came into office with a golden opportunity to reestablish some modicum of restraint over the actions of the executive branch in the pursuit of national security. Ironically, in a Boston Globe questionnaire in December 2007, Obama specifically rejected the argument that he used, in part, to justify going around Congress on Libya. "The President," wrote candidate Obama, "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation ... History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch."

While Obama has hardly gone as far down the road on expanding executive power as Bush did, it is also true that he "consolidated many of the principles of executive power that were first described in the Bush administration," says Ackerman. In effect, "Obama has done nothing to stop the return of another John Yoo." Indeed, with his actions on Libya, Obama has done more than consolidate Bush administration positions -- he has expanded them.

These are negative developments, but it gets worse. In the president's initial letter to Congress, the airstrikes in Libya, "will be limited in their nature, duration, and scope. Their purpose is to support an international coalition as it takes all necessary measures to enforce the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973." The U.N. resolution specifically did not call for regime change and yet in July 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made clear that the U.S. "objective" in Libya "is to do what we can to bring down the regime of Qaddafi." Moreover, as Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said to me, NATO forces looked the other way at flights by the French government, among others, that re-supplied the Libyan rebels (in violation of the arms embargo mandated under Section 9 of Resolution 1970); sought to kill Qaddafi via airstrikes (eventually indirectly succeeding); helped to plan the operations that allowed the insurgents to capture Tripoli, and provided sensitive and secret satellite imagery to the rebels. In short, the United States went far beyond the mandate established by the Security Council and in effect lied when claiming that the operations in Libya were simply about protecting civilians. Putting aside the international law implications, the administration adopted a position of regime change of a foreign leader without any approval from Congress.

What is most surprising about the Obama administration's position is that it likely would not have been a heavy lift to get congressional backing for the operations in Libya in the early stages of the air campaign. But by disregarding Congress's role on Libya -- and shifting the intent of the U.S. mission without any congressional input into the decision -- the president has set a new and potentially troubling precedent. In contrast, by seeking congressional authorization Obama would have, ironically, restored some of the balance between the legislative and executive branch on issues of use of American military force.

Running roughshod over Congress has becoming something of a norm within the Obama administration. As one foreign-policy analyst close to the White House said to me "they generally don't do a good job of keeping people in the Hill in the loop on what they are doing. They see congressional oversight as a nuisance -- even within their own party." Another analyst I spoke to had a one-word response to the question of the administration's attitude toward Congress's role in foreign policy: "Dismissive." Whether the lack of proper consultation over the closing of the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, the refusal to share with intelligence committees the rationale for targeted killings, or even brief Hill staffers on changes in missile defense deployment, this sort of ignoring of congressional prerogatives has often been the rule, not the exception.

What has been Congress's response to this disregarding of its role in foreign policy decision-making? The usual hemming and hawing, but little in the way of concrete action. During the Bush years, Republicans were more than happy to let the president expand his executive powers when it came to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terrorism. When Democrats took back the House and Senate from Republicans in 2006, they placed greater scrutiny on the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq -- but still continued to fund the conflict. Even in Washington's highly partisan current environment, little has changed; it's mostly sound and fury signifying nothing.

Republicans eschewed a constitutional confrontation with the White House over Libya, though the House GOP did make a rather partisan effort to defund the Libya operations (a measure that failed) and still today House and Senate members raise their frustrations in committee hearings over their heavy-handed treatment by the White House.

But the actions of some Republicans point in a different direction. Last year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon actually tried to expand the original Authorization for Use of Military Force that granted U.S. kinetic actions just three days after 9/11 -- which would have actually increased executive war-making power. While some on the Hill have long suspected the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution, it was one of the few checks that Congress maintained over the president (aside from ability to defund operations, which in itself is a difficult tool to wield effectively). Now they have been complicit in its further watering down.

Aside from Ron Paul, there's been little mention of the president's overreach in Libya by the GOP's presidential aspirants. And why should there be? If any of them become president they too would want to enjoy the expanded executive power that Obama has helped provide for them. Quite simply, in a closely divided country in which each party has a fair shot to win the White House every four years, there is little political incentive for either Democrats or Republicans to say enough is enough.

And with a former constitutional law professor punting on the issue (along with the much abused and maligned Congress), we're now even further from chipping away at the vast power the executive branch has been husbanded on national security issues. In the end, that may be the greatest legacy of the U.S. intervention in Libya.