Alan Gross update: Mixing foreign aid with foreign policy.

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?

Remember when the CIA did that fake vaccination scheme in Pakistan, the one that many predicted (correctly) would undermine confidence in American health assistance and other aid programs?

Well, there’s another ongoing saga that illustrates the cost of mixing up foreign aid with foreign policy, especially when we use covert means to achieve foreign policy goals. You will be forgiven if you have so far missed this story, given the boring headlines this week:

USAID contractor case renews debate on tactics

USAID contractor work detailed

American’s arrest in Cuba could have impact

Aid agency official knew he was ‘taking risks,’ report shows

Basically, here’s the story: Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was charged in 2009 with espionage or some such by the Cuban government and sentenced to 15 years in jail. I’m not sure why the squeamishness in the recent headlines, but it deserves attention.

This ongoing saga is important to Gross and his family, of course, but also because of the implications it could have for the ongoing discussion within the federal government about “re-inventing foreign aid.”

The Associated Press has published a great analysis of newly released reports of Gross’ activities in Cuba aimed at ‘democracy promotion’ among the island nation’s small Jewish community. That sounds pretty tame, until you read up on the details which include smuggling into the country electronic communications equipment aimed at circumventing Cuba’s control of web traffic.

This included Gross smuggling into Cuba a specialized kind of satellite telephone (SIM) card that is not available to the public and, according to the AP, is “provided most frequently to the Defense Department and the CIA.”

The AP: U.S. officials say he did nothing wrong and was just carrying out the normal mission of USAID.

Huh? This is the normal mission of USAID?

This is certainly normal for the CIA, or those other branches of government legitimately set up to undermine authoritarian regimes around the world. I’m all for undermining authoritarian regimes.

But is it wise, and in our long-term interest, to be enlisting USAID in this cause as well?

Should the agency that was set up primarily to bring food to the starving, medical supplies to the injured or otherwise engage in America’s humanitarian causes overseas also be doing covert political work against hostile foreign governments?

Is there a need to more clearly delineate foreign aid from foreign policy?

I’m just asking.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.