Friday, December 6, 2013

Nobody's man in Havana

USAID contractor Alan Gross, 64, has been captive in Cuba for four years and is wondering if anyone cares about getting him out before he serves the remaining 11 years of his jail sentence.

Those who most support the program that sent him to Cuba and who defend his activities there – the Obama Administration, Senator Menendez and allies in Congress – seem to have the least to offer when it comes to bringing him home.

Their solution is clear and simple: demand his unilateral and unconditional release.  (See this letter from Senator Menendez and this State Department statement.)

It’s all well and good to have a democracy development program that expands Internet access around the world.  And it sounds good to carry out that program wherever we like as if the concept of national sovereignty is quaint and irrelevant because, as Secretary Clinton used to argue, access to information is a universal right. 

All that idealism makes for good political speeches and strong-sounding letters to the President, it keeps the program going in Congress, and it provides the money that got Alan Gross the businessman interested in becoming a USAID operative in Cuba.

But the idealism was of no help to Alan Gross the operative because the program ignored – as did Mr. Gross – some basic operational realities.  Such as: The Cuban government cares about its own sovereignty especially vis-à-vis the United States.  The Cuban intelligence service is not a casual, 9-to-5 operation.  It is foolish to send anyone, much less an untrained USAID contractor, to operate on that service’s home turf.  And the placement of satellite Internet units with Wi-Fi hotspots would probably appear to the Cuban government to be a lot more than assistance to the Jewish community, especially because the operation was funded by a U.S. law (Helms-Burton) that seeks to overturn the political order in Cuba.

It has been four years and the demands for Mr. Gross’ unconditional release have not worked.  Is anyone responsible now for finding an approach that does work?

The Bush Administration designed the satellite Internet program and issued the contract that sent Mr. Gross to Cuba, but the Bush Administration is out of office.

USAID, to be fair, has long included warnings in its documents about its Cuba program that the program is illegal in Cuba and its operatives are at risk there.  USAID bristles at the idea that Mr. Gross would be traded for someone else, because that is how we get spies released, and Mr. Gross was not a spy.  The implication seems to be that USAID’s work is on a higher moral plane than that of intelligence agencies.  The time to think of such niceties, I would say, was before the agency decided to send contractors to attempt to operate covertly, or “discreetly” as USAID prefers to say, in another country.

The Obama Administration didn’t make the decision to send Mr. Gross to Cuba, but he went on the Administration’s watch, albeit in its first year when its personnel were still being placed in their jobs and those who were in place were not monitoring the missions of U.S. contractors to Cuba. 

Supporters of the USAID Cuba programs blame the Cuban government for, of course, arresting and sentencing Mr. Gross, and never seem troubled by the program’s naive operational design which led to the loss of one man’s freedom, the total waste of taxpayer dollars, and the gift of satellite equipment to the Cuban government. 

This letter from Senator Leahy and 65 other Senators seems to tell President Obama that it is his responsibility to act by taking “whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.”  Taken together with Senator Menendez’ letter urging the President to stick with the demands of the past four years, signed by only 14 Senators, this is a clear message to the President that his approach serves neither Mr. Gross nor the national interest, and should change.

The hangup for many is that the United States might give something to Cuba in return for Mr. Gross’ release.  That’s understandable, but it’s not an objection that comes up in other cases where we bargain for the release of our people. 

No one objected when the United States paid Egypt – a government that gets more than $1 billion in U.S. aid each year – $330,000 per head for the release of staffers for the International Republican Institute and the International Democratic Institute last year.  (They operated openly, but were arrested because the Egyptian government disliked their activities.)  Two of those who signed Senator Menendez’ letter, Senators McCain and Kirk, are directors of the International Republican Institute.

No one objected in 2010 when we obtained the release of four Russians who had apparently been working for us by sending 10 freshly arrested Russian agents home.  The whole thing took 11 days, from the arrest of the Russians to their flight home.

No one objected in 2011 when the United States worked out an arrangement in which $1.5 million was paid to Iran for the release of three hapless American hikers who apparently crossed into Iranian territory.

So what can President Obama do? 

He can get involved as he has in the case of Robert Levinson, an American held in Iran since 2007.  Mr. Levinson is described as a retired FBI agent who went to Iran on a tobacco company’s behalf to investigate cigarette smuggling.  President Obama has spoken on the phone to the President of Iran about the case.  In the photo above, he is shown meeting with Mr. Levinson’s wife.  Update: Levinson is a retired FBI agent and then some, AP reports.

On a strategic level, he can try to do with Cuba what he is attempting to do with Iran, where he is trying to solve both the immediate concern (nuclear development) and to find a way to put relations with that country on a better plane, for our benefit and that of the region.  A tall order, but a wise use of American leadership that does not put military action front and center.

In Cuba’s case the immediate issue of Mr. Gross is far simpler and there is no issue that threatens U.S. or regional security.  If President Obama starts serious discussions with Cuba, the end-game might not involve direct bargaining for Mr. Gross, but rather a series of measures to improve U.S.-Cuba relations where his release is one of many results.  If U.S. policy changes in the bargain, so much the better.  Since so much of our policy toward Cuba is contrary to our own interests, we could come out ahead, far more than the President imagines.

Well worth reading: Alan Gross’ letter to President Obama, the Washington Post’s story on it, Cuba’s reiteration this week that it is willing to negotiate, Julia Sweig’s argument that the Obama Administration should seize a diplomatic opportunity with Cuba, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus’ assessment that the Alan Gross case is a low priority for the Obama Administration, and this article by former USAID lawyer Stephen Kaplitt, who now represents Mr. Gross.

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