Damn Yanquis

Why is President Obama still allowing covert operations in Cuba? It's just one failed disaster after another.

The idea of "democracy promotion" sells well in Washington -- it's practically untouchable. But yet another investigation into the covert action programs targeted against Cuba, published on Aug. 4 by the Associated Press, shows in vivid detail how amateur and feckless they are. Despite public statements about seeking a "new beginning" with Havana, U.S. President Barack Obama has continued -- even ramped up -- the clandestine activities on the island started by his predecessor, bringing the total resources wasted on the Cuba programs to well above a couple of hundred million dollars.

The effort has also cost us valuable prestige on the island and throughout Latin America, and Fidel Castro must have cracked a smile at it all as he celebrated his 88th birthday last week. It's time to stop these absurd programs and implement policies that will promote democracy, as they have in many countries.

The operations undertaken by former President George W. Bush and Obama have been both clandestine and covert, according to AP reports and the investigations the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) conducted when I was on its staff in 2010 to 2011. In fact, the State Department and USAID obsessively concealed the U.S. hand behind them, keeping that information from most of the people involved. Rather than "promoting democracy," their focus has been on regime change, and their objective has been to persuade Cubans to confront the Castro government to achieve it -- as if we knew better how they should build their future. This approach has created entrepreneurial dissidents eager for cash disbursements, and undercut the legitimate activists who see it as merely a continuation of a failed policy of embargoes, diplomatic isolation, and covert actions for the past five decades.

This new generation of covert operators does not hail from intelligence agencies, and they are not subject to the scrutiny imposed on real spooks. Nor do congressional oversight committees receive briefings of these operations necessary for appropriate oversight. When I was a senior advisor to SFRC chairman Sen. John Kerry, the State Department and USAID told us during a meeting that was supposed to be a briefing that neither we (nor the chairman) were cleared to know what they were doing in Cuba. "People would die" was their excuse. The operations are planned, executed, and self-evaluated by the State Department, USAID, and their "partners" -- the corporations and government-subsidized NGOs receiving millions of taxpayer dollars a year.

In response to an AP report about the programs in April, Obama spokesmen claimed that they were not secret but merely "discreet," and not intended to incite political action in Cuba. (USAID defended itself with a list of eight facts about the program.) The information that inside sources have detailed for the AP and to the SFRC, however, make a mockery of such statements. USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who's been in a Cuban hospital-prison for four years, was deploying sensitive government-controlled technology to create a secret communications system. He told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer that his task was to set it up and "test to see if it works," apparently for future unspecified political operations. The administration claims still that Gross was merely helping the Jewish community across Cuba get Internet access, but Gross's remark to Blitzer and comments he's made to visitors in prison indicate that expanding Internet access was essentially an afterthought. Neither the supposed Jewish beneficiaries of his program, nor the "mules" -- as USAID called them in its emails -- smuggling gear to him in Cuba were aware of his real objective.

The AP revealed that the program, called Project ZunZuneo, linked unwitting Cubans -- unaware of the U.S. funding and objectives -- through cellphone networks with the purpose of encouraging them to engage in flash-mob protests and other anti-regime activities to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to project documents. Other operations adopted a health care cover -- such as AIDS prevention -- to organize unsuspecting Cubans to undertake politically motivated activities. The White House spokesman who responded to the AP report in April apparently was never briefed on these operations.

More revelations are forthcoming, as people associated with the programs share their stories with news outlets. On the SFRC staff, we heard from professionals from USAID and the State Department -- privately, out of a fear of retribution -- about concerns over their agencies' embrace of the clandestine operations. Their stories were serious enough that Kerry, already leery of the initiatives that had resulted in Gross's arrest, put a hold on the programs for some months, allowing them to resume only after receiving a promise that they'd received a rigorous review. The State Department reneged on the promise, and the leaks have slowly been coming. Among the stories that whistleblowers shared confidentially with us back in 2010 were USAID's false-flag operations in Central America -- recently reported by the AP based on its own sources -- to recruit individuals, all unaware of the U.S. funding and regime-change objectives, to travel to Cuba to teach their counterparts how to organize politically. They were taught how to communicate through code and pass police interrogation.

We also learned from insiders that, under the rubric of "democracy promotion," some of USAID's "partners" were simply paying people $50 cash -- a lot of money in Cuba -- to join anti-government protests, without knowing they were funded by the U.S. government. Others were distributing "informational products," including attacks on the Cuban Catholic Church, that were inconsistent with U.S. policy and values. And in 2011, a USAID grantee offered congressional staff bottles of fancy rum after a session boasting about how, in attempting to influence host governments' policies toward Cuba, he coordinated protests in Europe using U.S. tax dollars (without, incidentally, the knowledge of U.S. embassies in those countries).

The spy-vs.-spy tenor multiplies the harm that the operations represent to all involved. The secrecy of Gross's activity and his encrypted communications systems looked like an intelligence operation, making his defense many times harder and his Cuban prison term longer. Cash subsidies for political activities undermine participants' credibility and subject them to more hostile government treatment. Governments friendly to Washington feel betrayed when they are targeted by the political influence operations afoot in their capitals. 

It's hard to judge how the Cuban people really feel about all this. According to sources within the human rights community, those who take our cash love it, and those who don't, don't. But most Cubans aren't as easily manipulated as our policy assumes they are, and a large number of them have got to resent that Cuban counterintelligence scores win after win against Washington. Cuban TV has shown videos, including a series that ran from March to April of 2011, of the State Department and USAID's agents doing their work, with voiceover commentary mocking the yanquis' arrogance in assuming they were undetected.

Cubans indeed want change, but it's clearer than ever that they want it to be evolutionary -- as seems to be happening now -- rather than revolutionary, destabilizing, and destructive. Raúl Castro's cautious opening of the economy has been tortuous, but paring back state enterprises and allowing space for certain private business is indeed changing Cubans' relationship with the government in a way that they welcome. Many Cubans obviously wish they had the wealth of their brothers in Miami, but much of the rhetoric coming out of Miami for decades has also made them risk-averse. The regime-change programs, like the 60-year trade embargo, have not only failed to achieve their stated purposes; their approach -- heating the pressure-cooker to the point of exploding -- does not enjoy support beyond those directly benefiting from them.

If Obama wants to argue that covert operations to effect change in Cuba will work and are in the U.S. national interest, then he should make that case. And he should run the programs under a presidential finding -- as required by law -- and through the intelligence community, rather than policy agencies and their profit-making partners. 

But democratic transitions in many countries show that there are vastly more effective ways of facilitating change -- through trade, tourism, and an array of social and cultural interactions. Before President George W. Bush shut them down in favor of his "Initiative for a New Cuba" in 2002 and his measures "hastening the end of the Cuban dictatorship" in 2004, the United States did a lot in Cuba that arguably helped people feel a sense of ownership of their future. Book exchanges, cultural and academic outreach, and visitor programs showed Cubans that we are more than an imperial ogre pushing just one, self-serving vision of their future. People-to-people contacts are a lot more effective than any covert action at getting information and resources to Cubans seeking a better life. 

If President Obama's goal is to help Cubans have a better future, then he should stop the silliness, pull back the spies, get the U.S. government out of the way, and let the American people -- in business, academia, culture, even tourists -- take the lead. 



How to Beat Down a Bully

There's only one way to stop Putin's ugly new doctrine of irregular intervention -- hit back even harder.

The international community is at long last beginning to take a strong stand against Moscow's aggression in eastern Ukraine. There is solid evidence indicating not only that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-aided rebels in eastern Ukraine, but that the Kremlin has bolstered the rebels with heavy artillery despite toughened Western sanctions. Moreover, Russia has massed over 45,000 soldiers near the eastern Ukrainian border, who are poised to undertake a "humanitarian operation." The large convoy of trucks Russia is sending to aid rebel-held Lugansk could prove to be a thinly disguised Trojan horse, setting off a major showdown once it arrives at the border.

President Vladimir Putin's double game has only ramped up since the downing of MH17, in response to the recent gains Ukraine's military forces have been making against the rebels. After a turning-point victory in liberating the strategic town of Slavyansk last month, the Ukrainian military has gone on to retake three-fourths of its lost territory and is now pounding the last two major rebel strongholds, Donetsk and Lugansk. Many of these rebels are not just pro-Russian sympathizers, they are full-fledged Russian citizens -- including some notorious bad apples like Igor Strelkov and Vladimir Antyufeyev, whom Russia previously used in not-so-subtle attempts to destabilize former members of the Warsaw Pact. Now Moscow is also aiding them by firing artillery across the border at Ukrainian forces attempting a final rout of the rebels.

The time has come for the West to make a decisive move to counter Putin's irregular war against Ukraine. The Russian president has introduced a perilous new norm into the international system, namely that it is legitimate to violate the borders of other countries in order to "protect" not just ethnic Russians, but "Russian speakers" -- with military means if necessary. Putin has notoriously threatened to annex Transnistria, the Russian-speaking territory of Moldova, inter alia. The Putin Doctrine represents a serious transgression of the status quo that has guaranteed the continent's security since the end of World War II; moreover, it violates the most essential tenet of the post-1945 international order.

The aim of Western actions must involve compelling Russia to end all support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine and ensure complete respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity. In order to bring about this result -- and ensure Moscow does not continue its dangerous double game -- a comprehensive approach is needed. It should consist of three elements: even tougher economic sanctions; military armaments to Ukraine; and an updated NATO strategy. The combined effect of this approach is to persuade the Kremlin that the cost of its Ukraine adventure and aggressive pursuit of the Putin Doctrine is too high.

The West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia for the past several months, but the results thus far have been feeble. The problem is partly that the sanctions started small and were only slowly ratcheted up. Moreover, European sanctions have been noticeably weaker than U.S. measures, feeding Putin's calculation that he can continue to act as he chooses, while a reluctant Europe hesitates to impose sufficiently punishing measures.

The sanctions that the United States and the European Union put in place on July 29, however, are strong enough to get Moscow's attention. Indeed, despite Russia's counter-sanctions on European and American food products, Putin is witnessing the failure of his efforts to split Europe from the United States -- not to mention the larger failure of preventing Kiev's new government from tilting to the West. But these measures have not been enough to actually deter Russia from continuing to intervene in eastern Ukraine. The West needs to make clear that the latest sanctions will not be the last if Moscow's aggression is not rapidly terminated.

The second part of a comprehensive strategy is to make it easier for Ukraine to re-establish control in its restive east. Since his late-May election, President Petro Poroshenko has conducted a successful counteroffensive against the rebels in eastern Ukraine. His forces have resealed a significant part of its eastern border and taken back much of the territory seized by the rebel forces. But as Poroshenko's troops have advanced, Moscow has increased the amount and sophistication of military supplies to Ukraine, including the SA-11 surface-to-air missile system that shot down MH17 and the SA-13 system. Thus far, his multiple requests for direct lethal aid have only met with reluctance in Brussels and Washington.

The West has dithered under the assumption that providing lethal aid to Ukraine would escalate the conflict. But a sanctions-dominant approach clearly has not prevented escalation. Indeed, with France's determination to sell the Mistral ships to Russia, the West is in the peculiar position of arming the aggressor and forbidding arms to the victim. If Russia does not cease firing missiles at Ukrainian forces and supplying the rebels with arms and equipment, and does not pull troops back from the border within two weeks, the West should begin supplying Ukraine proper with anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and a variety of additional infantry weaponry. And it should immediately threaten to do even more if Russia invades eastern Ukraine -- including inviting Kiev to join NATO.

The third element of a comprehensive strategy against Moscow requires a clear-eyed understanding of the Putin Doctrine. His stated right to "protect" Russian speakers is an invitation to intervene along Russia's border in all directions, including in the territory of America's NATO allies in the Baltics and elsewhere. For this reason, Washington's response must involve a new approach at NATO for managing the Russian relationship. The NATO-Russia Joint Doctrine that concluded in the late 1990s, which saw Russia as a partner, and which spoke of not building military infrastructure in the new NATO members or permanently deploying major military equipment and forces, needs to be reviewed. Publicly.

The small steps taken earlier this year to reassure NATO's eastern members -- Baltic air policing, NATO maritime movements, several small-scale NATO exercises, placement of U.S. and Western European aircraft around the Baltics and in Poland, and the deployment of a company of U.S. paratroopers to Poland -- need substantial reinforcing. If Russia fails to respond to tougher sanctions, pointed diplomacy, and lethal aid supplied to the Ukraine military, the allies must take further measures at September's NATO summit in Wales.

It would be prudent to follow up NATO's suspension of cooperation with Russia with an official review, with one of the options being maintaining the suspension and another being to end it and all other forms of cooperation. Because Washington still needs Moscow's help with a handful of key things (missile defense, Iran negotiations, Syria peace talks, and agreeing to rules governing cyberwarfare), the aim would be to list ending the NATO-Russia Council as an option -- but with the unstated intention of not actually following through. As NATO's Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow has been arguing, Russia has begun treating the United States and the alliance as an adversary. This is why we need to go beyond suspension and dangle complete cessation, even if for the time being we don't plan to make good on this threat.

Regarding NATO's troop placement, however, the United States needs to use this as the major means of reassuring our allies. It would be a good idea to bring the level of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe up to 1,000 from the temporary placement of 600 paratroopers (this could include 100 to 150 "soft forces," such as trainers). Washington also needs to do its best to get the Western Europeans to add to this total. To entice the Europeans to match the U.S. commitment, Washington should propose not permanent placement but a perpetual rotational arrangement. This way, the reddish line of permanent placement would not be crossed, but NATO would nonetheless achieve upgraded deterrence capability, while mollifying Poland and the Baltics.

Eastern European nations such as Poland are likely to welcome and add to increased capabilities commitments; Western Europeans nations, however, are far more hesitant. Direct lethal aid and a regularized rotational U.S.-Europe troop placement will go most of the way toward re-establishing conventional deterrence against Moscow. But to go all the way, Western allies also need to conduct a yearly exercise in Poland (and make announcements that in future years this new major exercise will be taking place in the Baltic states). This should be a major ground-air exercise of the NATO Response Force (NRF), with a military plan for defending an invasion from the east.

Regarding military capabilities, the United States should endorse both the German proposal to organize clusters of allies that would increase their military capabilities and Britain's proposal that would align Western allies to spearhead NATO military operations beyond what the current NRF plans call for. It is worth remembering that crude measures like the level of overall defense spending are far less important than the current state of military capabilities, which lately have been enhanced even by Western allies that have reduced their defense spending (e.g. France, Britain, and Germany). Furthermore, the alliance ought to augment its operational air force capabilities to be able to conduct 30-day air operations like the one carried out in Libya in 2011 (with the necessary fighter aircraft, flight crews, refueling aircraft, drones, and satellite surveillance). NATO needs to be thinking of capabilities in the full spectrum of land, naval, air, and cyber-power, and air capability is the biggest gap.

Indeed, the time has come for the West to take an even stronger stand against Russian aggression and force Putin to back down and end this crisis. The West should proceed with a fuller slate of toughened sanctions, targeting all major sectors of the Russian economy -- virtually all of their products and services -- and a full-fledged embargo against transferring any arms or defense technology to Russia. Tightening the economic screws is still a major element of a successful strategy to get Russia to cease and desist. But this is not enough.

The Russian president needs to be deterred from annexing other contested territories, like Transnistria, and reinforcing his ugly new international relations norm by deeply interfering in the internal affairs of other national states, such as the Baltics. This will require a series of additional and stronger military moves on the European chessboard. Let Crimea be the apogee of revanchist Russian aggrandizement. It is time for global security and international law to push back strongly against bellicose Russian dictates.