Liberation technology or full-spectrum dominance?

To hear it from the New York Times (and Hillary Clinton), the US government’s latest efforts to support overseas dissidents are nothing more nor less than the noble expression of the American love of freedom. Perhaps that’s why this article makes no reference to Wikileaks (or Haystack) but does in part rely on information derived from classified diplomatic cables “obtained” by the paper. That presumably means classified information revealed by the administration to journalists who can be relied on to incorporate such information into a government-approved narrative.

The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American effort. “We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Mrs. Clinton said in an e-mail response to a query on the topic. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”

This freedom-narrative gets a bit farcical, however, when we are told that an “independent” cellphone network is being constructed in Afghanistan using towers built inside US military bases. It’s only by paragraph 37 that we are reminded, “The United States is widely understood to use cellphone networks in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for intelligence gathering.” Indeed.

Which begs a question — a question that the New York Times reporters do not venture to ask: Do the administration’s efforts to provide global revolutionaries with better tools have more to do with enhancing the US government’s ability to monitor these rapidly evolving networks, than with advancing democracy?

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.

The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.

Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.

The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country. It is intended to offset the Taliban’s ability to shut down the official Afghan services, seemingly at will.

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