Friday, March 22, 2013

The secret files of Alan Gross

A drawing from a confidential Alan Gross memo
Alan Gross envisioned setting up satellite Internet connections for Cuban Jews in Havana and six other provinces, then expanding his effort to include as many as 30,000 Masons at more than 300 lodges across the country.
Cuban Jews had "strategic value" in the democracy project because of their religious, financial and humanitarian ties to the United States, Gross said in an October 2008 memo filed this month in U.S. District Court.
Jewish synagogues were a "secure springboard through which information dissemination will be expanded," Gross wrote in the 27-page memo to his former employer, DAI, a federal contractor in Bethesda, Md.
The memo and other documents filed this month in U.S. District Court give new details about the original scope of the multimillion-dollar project, which was designed to go far beyond helping Jews connect to the Internet as the State Department has repeatedly suggested.
Gross, 63, and his wife, Judy, are suing DAI for $60 million, saying that the contractor failed to prepare Gross for his risky mission, resulting in his capture in 2009. DAI has denied the accusation and says it isn't to blame for the subcontractor's jailing.

Alan Gross
Cuban authorities arrested Gross in December 2009. He was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
His 2008 memo said U.S.-based humanitarian organizations that take computers and other supplies to Jews in Cuba could be useful in DAI's democracy project. One possible implication is that these groups could be used, perhaps unwittingly, to shuttle equipment to Cuba, although Gross doesn't explain in detail what he had in mind.
He writes that Cuban Jews and later Masons could help DAI establish an information and communications technologies "foothold."
These groups are likely targets for successfully establishing a low-profile ICT foothold. Both have extended organizational networks and communities throughout the island and both are connected and/or have strong institutional relationships with US faith-based and humanitarian organizations that frequently sponsor Island missions.
In his proposal to DAI, Gross proposed setting up Internet sites at 12 Jewish synagogues in the provinces of Havana, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, Granma, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. Some 1,800 men, women and youth were members of the synagogues. They were the initial target of the democracy project. Gross wrote:
Members of the primary target group will be able to help train members of the secondary target group in the event of a follow on project.
The secondary - or follow on- target included members of 319 Masonic Lodges in Cuba.
An infographic Gross submitted to DAI also cites "youth, women and Afro-Cubans."
Gross said in court documents he was coordinating some of his activities with the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, another organization that had received U.S. government funds to try to hasten Cuba's transition to democracy.
José Manuel Collera Vento
Cuban agents wound up infiltrating PADF's operation in Cuba. One of the organization's main contacts, José Manuel Collera Vento, former head of the Freemasons fraternal organization in Cuba,  turned out to be an informant for Cuban State Security (See interview with Collera, also known as Agent Gerardo).
At the time, Gross headed a small company called JBDC . He worried about the Cuban government's counterespionage efforts and was especially concerned about the fate of his contacts in Cuba's Jewish community.
The 2008 memo underscored the need for secrecy:
All information on this page is considered highly confidential and is not to be disclosed or reproduced for distribution without the expressed written permission of JBDC, LLC. Failure to comply with this could lead to irreparable harm to certain parties on the island.
In court documents, Gross's lawyer said DAI's biggest concern was figuring out who would replace him if he could no longer carry out the project.

A one-page memo from DAI to Gross stated:
Given your concerns regarding your ability to remain on the island, please indicate in writing your contingency plan in the case that you are unable to continue working on the island for whatever reason. Who will take over to see the project to completion?
Gross replied that if he were to become "persona non grata" on the island, his company, JBDC, would pick a new leader. He wrote:
We have several (3) excellent candidates with whom we have worked for more than five years on field information projects. In the event that the project director becomes PNG, a JBDC decision will be made concerning who will resume field leadership with the confidence that DAI will approve. A key aspect in this decision will mainly involve availability.

The U.S. Agency for International Development had awarded DAI a contract worth $28 million to carry out the democracy project in 2008. The company asked Gross to join the effort and told him he was project's top subcontractor.
Gross and others transported satellite Internet gear to Cuba and installed it at synagogues in Havana, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. He never reached his goal of setting up Internet sites in 12 communities in seven provinces. Nor is there evidence that he expanded his project to include Masons.
Gross did travel to Cuba to begin the project's second phase, but was arrested as he tried to leave the island.
Will Recant
Gross was traveling alone at the time and his company was largely a one-man operation.
However, while pursuing the DAI subcontract in 2008, Gross said a "community development associate" would assist him at the start of the project. Gross wrote that William Recant:
...is considered a trusted party by the community. He has an excellent understanding of the on-the-ground nuances of political and organizational life on the Island, as well as a keen grasp on how to get things done there.
Recant is the assistant executive vice-president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, touted as "the world's leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization."

Editor's note: I left a message with the JDC requesting comment and haven't yet heard back from the organization.

Recant's biography says he:
serves as the senior staff person regarding all of JDC's non-sectarian and disaster relief programs. In this capacity, he coordinates projects relating to the rescue, relief, and renewal of Jewish communities worldwide and develops non-sectarian programs. Will is also the Desk Director for Latin America and Europe Community Development at JDC headquarters in New York, which involves him in the effort to relieve the Argentinean community in crisis.
Excerpts of Gross's 27-page memo are below:

Revised Technical Response to Request for Proposal No. CDP-01 New Media 10-08 CDP New Media Initiatives

1. Project Summary

JBDC, LLC designed and developed an in-country pilot project called "ICTs Para la Isla." This pilot project will train a segment of an identified primary target group on the use and maintenance of currently available off-the-shelf terrestrial and non-terrestrial information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The primary target group identified for this purpose will benefit from the use of these ICTs by gaining greater access to information that is presently highly restricted and difficult to obtain.

The group will further benefit from this pilot project by gaining the ability to distribute this information to and communicate with the larger organization communities throughout the island.

The initial target group will also participate in a monitoring and evaluation process with which they will become familiarized as part of their technical training. Identification of a secondary target group for a follow on project will be confirmed prior to the conclusion of the first pilot. Members of the primary target group will be able to help train members of the secondary target group in the event of a follow on project.

2. Country Context

2.1 General County Context

For nearly five decades, two principal issues have heavily impacted on the island's ability to make informed choices: 1) blocked or very limited access to information, and 2) closely monitored and blocked communications between pro-democracy groups. This also applies to the general public at large. While these groups represent a foundation for a future free island, they have not been able to communicate effectively with their constituents nor with each other.

We now have the ability to transmit, access and communicate information on a large scale through the use (albeit discreetly) of specific off-the-shelf technologies. The free world is able to and does take advantage of these technologies. Through effective use of current information and communications technologies (ICTs), the potential to help bring about and support social change on the island sooner rather than later will increase.

At this specific juncture, change in domestic policies is highly anticipated on the island, as is concern about change. Consequently, any effort to introduce new technologies must be done with sensitivity.

2.2 Specifically, as related to Project Activities

2.2.1 ICTs Para la Isla - Pilot will help to change the status quo when it comes to accessing and communicating information. The Pilot will build upon JBDC experience in order to help develop systems that will hasten a transition to democracy through informed choice. This objective will be advanced by diminishing the information and communications blockade. More specifically, the Pilot will, on a limited test-basis, accomplish the objective of introducing specific devices that will enable greater direct access to information and communications and improve intra- and intergroup communications channels.

2.22 The intent is for JBDC to utilize to the fullest extent possible its findings from previous island work and hands-on practical ICT experience, as well as its international development experience in more than 50 countries.

3. Problem to which the Project is Responding

Access to the Internet is available on the island, however it is highly limited, highly monitored and general use is highly restricted. Hotel access for 1 hour of use costs approximately 25 percent of an individual's average monthly income on the island. It is conventional thought that as of 2004 less than 2 percent of the island's population had real information access through the Internet. Most Islanders lack the ability to access information that is readily available through the Internet from websites that many in the free world take for granted. With the advent of legal cellular/mobile telephone use, new opportunities exist for multi-modal information dissemination.

4. Project Strategy

4.1 Justification of Strategy

This Pilot activity will lay a practical groundwork that will facilitate and enable the better management of larger-scale and more comprehensive transition-to-democracy initiatives by building ICT networks. Employing multi-modal devices will help mitigate logistics risks (e.g., signal blockage). Real-time testing and verifying which technologies work best in the field for specific and varying purposes will be instrumental for this as well as numerous other future transition activities.

4.2 Goal

The successful implementation of this Pilot project will identify practical ways to develop and reach a larger pro-democracy constituency. It will help insure the transfer and conveyance of information by initially establishing Internet connectivity at more than 1 location on the island.

The following graphic illustratively shows how improved information flows can be used. Based on previous work done on the Island and through ongoing professional relationships, JBDC will work initially with and through the Island Community and later with the Masons. These groups are likely targets for successfully establishing a low-profile ICT foothold. Both have extended organizational networks and communities throughout the island and both are connected and/or have strong institutional relationships with US faith-based and humanitarian organizations that frequently sponsor Island missions.


4.3 Primary Target Beneficiaries1

The primary target beneficiaries affiliate with a specific faith-based group comprised of 1,800 women, men and youth. This group is organized into 12 communities throughout the Island:
  • Adath Israel
  • Caibarien
  • Camaguey
  • Campechuela
  • Centro Sefaradi
  • Chevet Achim
  • Cienfuegos
  • Guantanamo
  • El Patronato
  • Sancti Spiritus
  • Santa Clara
  • Santiago de Cuba
There is strategic value in identifying this specific group because:
  • Possible Internet access sites have already been identified.
  • The size of the group is manageable in the context of project implementation.
  • The group has direct and indirect links to other communities on the island with significant populations.
  • It is linked to other faith-based groups nationwide.
  • It receives meaningful financial and other support from non-governmental sources in the US.
  • It is currently and legally developing a youth computer lab with non-governmental outside support that could become a very helpful information distribution portal; while this facility is considering highly likely to serve as a future Internet portal, it has too much visibility. However, its participants can serve as important technical resources that will help keep the Pilot up and running following initial implementation.
  • The group could be given technical assistance to develop - among other initiatives - a 12-community intranet through which written educational and faith-based material can be cost-efficiently distributed. As the 12-community intranet is developed, information (text, sound, and video formats) can be downloaded from 1 Internet site, then distributed via the community's intranet.
  • Numerous missions from around the US visit the Island annually and bring many critically needed commodities, such as medicines, computers, books, etc. Many such faith-based congregations and organizations sponsor island missions, such as:
- "Island" Health Network
- "AJJDC"
- "Island" Connection
- Solidarity
- The "Island"
- American Mission
- BB Center for Public Policy "Island" Relief Project
- Individual US congregations

This target group is thought to be a secure springboard through which information dissemination will be expanded. It is also a community to which JBDC has longstanding relationships in a very broad but low-profile context.

Secondary Target Beneficiaries to be confirmed for a Pilot "Phase II"

Approximately 30,000 Masons are organized through 319 Masonic Lodges nationwide. As of 2004, these lodges were situated as follows: (Editor's note: This document contains misspellings of city names and scattered other punctuation errors. The mistakes are left intact to preserve the document's original form).

Matonces  28
Campo 29
Ciudad Havana 111
Santiago 19
Pinar del Rio 17
Ville Clara 30
Sacti Spiritus 11
Cien Fuegos 14
Ciego del Avila 8
Camaguey 14
Las Tuna 6
Holguin 14
Granma 10
Guantanamo 7
Isla de la Joventud 1

Although not as closely managed as is the organization of primary target group on the island, the Masons also represent an organized mechanism through which information can be disseminated. Identifying possible Internet access sites will be accomplished during the first mission.

JBDC will identify a specific segment of this secondary target group prior to the conclusion of the Pilot in the event of a follow-on.

Key personnel lists Gross and William Recant, Community Development Associate. The document states Recant is:
an intermittent consultant/employee who has directed more than 50 faith-based, humanitarian and community development missions to the island. Throughout his career he has initiated, implemented and managed many humanitarian and community revitalization programs in more than 30 countries, such as in the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, China, Rwanda, and in particular on the island. He has significant credibility within the target group and well beyond he is considered a trusted party by the community. He has an excellent understanding of the on-the-ground nuances of political and organizational life on the Island, as well as a keen grasp on how to get things done there. Dr. Recant holds both a Master's Degree and Ph.D. in Political Science.
Relevant Past Performance

Specific information concerning island activities is contractually restricted. What can be shared, however, is that JBDC has implemented an on-island assessment that discovered ways in which direct text communications could be established between the US and Islanders. The primary objective of this project was to explore what opportunities existed to use relatively inexpensive communications technologies that could be used to convey information by voice and data. JBDC discreetly field tested access and use of cellular text messaging from the island and investigated prospects for the use of other internet-related technologies. Strategic information obtained from this effort will be updated during the first field visit.



1 Both Primary and Secondary target groups have viable communities appropriate for this purpose. However, all equipment logistics from the US to the Island will be more secure with the Primary target group.


Note: This article was shared with the Center for Democracy in the Americas as part of a six-month collaborative project with non-profit group. See more about our collaboration here.

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