the CIA’s “mighty wurlitzer” has always been too subtle for right-wingers to understand & support

Hearing Reveals US Govt’s Invisible Hand in Protests Around the World
Dave DeCamp, Antiwar.com, Sep 29 2020

Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee grilled Michael Pack, who President Trump recently appointed to head the US government’s state propaganda arm, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Pack was appointed in June and started a big shakeup at the US state media outlets run by the USAGM, like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Pack fired senior staffers, pushed out management, and froze funding. During last week’s hearing, Democrats and Republicans on the committee teamed up to attack Pack for his purges. But what seemed more important to Congress and former USAGM officials was Pack’s move to freeze funds to the Open Technology Fund (OTF). The OTF was formed in 2012 and operated as part of Radio Free Asia for seven years. In 2019, the OTF became an independent non-profit, although it is financed by US taxpayer dollars through the USAGM. According to former USAGM officials and OTF board members, the OTF supports protesters in other nations across the world. Grant Turner, the former USAGM chief financial officer who Pack removed in August, said:

In many places around the globe, OTF quietly is providing support to protesters. So the Hong Kong protesters are protecting their identities from surveillance by OTF tools. Protesters in Iran. We’ve seen it in Beirut. Around the world, people are using these tools to protect themselves, so we would surge funds on technology, and also to the broadcasting operations.

Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, the chair the board of the OTF, also testified and spoke of how the OTF helps protest movements. Kornbluh explained that the USAGM froze OTF funds before China’s national security law for Hong Kong came into effect. She said:

OTF has a long history of supporting internet freedom efforts, and was poised to expand its efforts in Hong Kong. It was going to serve support for circumvention tools and expand support for digital training. And then USAGM froze, and continues to withhold, its funding, and did that just weeks before the new security laws came into effect, so OTF hasn’t been able to support any of these efforts.

The frozen Hong Kong funds were first reported by Time Magazine in June. According to Time, Pack froze $2m that would have “directly benefited the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.” One project the OTF was working on in Hong Kong was a “cyber-security incident response team” that would have analyzed Chinese surveillance techniques in Hong Kong. The team would have shared information with developers who would design apps for protesters to use. The freeze in funding made this project impossible to go through with. Another OTF project hampered by the freeze was a $500,000 “rapid response fund, designed to provide fast relief for civil society groups, protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders.” According to Time, this initiative has already made several payouts to groups in Hong Kong since the civil unrest began in Jun 2019. The cut in funding inadvertently revealed the US government’s covert role in the Hong Kong protest movement. The US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy also provides funding for “pro-democracy” movements in Hong Kong. Besides the US government supporting Hong Kong protesters through cutout organizations like the OTF and NED, there has been more overt interference in the city. Throughout the demonstrations, protesters were seen waving US flags and calling for Congress to pass legislation. Leaders of the movement even traveled to Washington and testified before Congress, pleading for US intervention. President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law in Nov 2019. The administration has since sanctioned Hong Kong officials and changed the city’s special trade status. This US interference gave Beijing the foreign boogeyman it needed to pass the controversial national security law. Pack was appointed to head the USAGM after the White House accused Voice of America of repeating Chinese state propaganda in its coronavirus coverage. Considering this, the damage Pack’s overhaul did to the OTF’s support for protesters in Hong Kong was likely an unintended consequence.

Trump Administration Freezes Funds Intended to Benefit Hong Kong Protesters
Billy Perrigo, Time Magazine, Jun 26 2020

The Trump Administration has frozen funding intended to help people in Hong Kong evade surveillance by the Chinese government, sources with knowledge of the matter tell TIME, just as Beijing prepares to impose a new national security law that protesters fear will erode civil liberties there. The funding freeze came on Jun 9, five days after Michael Pack, an ally of President Trump, was confirmed by the Senate to lead the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees federal funding of several Internet freedom and foreign news initiatives, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Senior staff at the agency were informed in an email, obtained by TIME, that Pack had suspended funding on a range of activities at the agency. In the email, USAGM’s chief financial officer Grant Turner cited a request by Pack to immediately freeze “new contracts or extensions of any contract” from the agency’s federal operations and grantees, as well as on new hires and promotions. The freeze affected several contracts—estimated by two sources with knowledge of them to be worth around $2m, that would have directly benefited the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In a statement to TIME, the USAGM did not dispute the $2m figure, but said that it was committed to defending Internet freedom in the region. A spokesperson said:

USAGM CEO Michael Pack understands the scale and nature of the threat posed by opponents of freedom of expression, and that is precisely why he considers bolstering firewall circumvention a top priority of his tenure at the agency.

The funds were set to be distributed by the Washington-based Open Technology Fund (OTF), group overseen by USAGM that funds open-source Internet freedom projects around the world. The OTF is officially an independent non-profit, but is funded by Congress with government oversight. The Trump Administration’s funding freeze came less than a month after the Chinese Communist Party announced plans for a national security law that will make secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces a crime. Pro-democracy campaigners say the law, which is expected to be passed on Tuesday and take immediate effect, will curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy and the freedoms it enjoys that distinguish it from mainland China. The impending legislation, and another controversial law that criminalizes insulting China’s national anthem, have sparked fresh rounds of unrest in Hong Kong in recent weeks—though protests have so far failed to regain the momentum they had in the second half of 2019. One of the OTF’s plans ahead of the national security law coming into force in Hong Kong was to set up a cyber-security incident response team focused on Hong Kong. The team would have analyzed Chinese surveillance techniques, and shared information quickly with developers of secure communications apps after identifying how those techniques are developing, two people with knowledge of the plans said. Those plans were made impossible by the funding freeze.

Another initiative hamstrung by the freeze was the OTF’s approximately $500k rapid response fund, designed to provide fast relief for civil society groups, protesters, journalists and human rights defenders who have come under digital attack. The fund is open to applicants from around the world, but has made several payouts to groups in Hong Kong since unrest began there in Jun 2019. The freeze has so far prevented at least one Hong Kong-related payout from the rapid response fund. That payout was described by two people with knowledge of the plans as being for a large project focused on helping civil society groups in Hong Kong with their digital security. The OTF is little-known outside the world of open source technology, but its funding has contributed to the development of secure communications tools used by protesters in Hong Kong and around the world. It was a key early funder of Signal, the encrypted messaging app of choice for many Hong Kong protesters. Between 2012 and 2016, it donated nearly $3m to the development of the encryption protocol the app is built on. The app has since received at least $50m in other private investment. The OTF has also directed funds toward projects dedicated to collecting and preserving information shared on the Chinese social networks Weibo and Wechat before posts are censored. It has also invested more than $6 million in Tor, the encrypted internet service that can mask browsing habits from authorities, popular among dissidents around the world. A USAGM official said:

I wouldn’t be surprised if it is negatively impacting the Hong Kong protesters and putting them at risk, as well as lots of other folks around the world. I’m almost certain that they didn’t take into account the timing of the national security law. It was sort of a carte blanche thing on day one and I’m not sure if they are really appreciating the operational impact.

Many Hong Kongers, especially pro-democracy protesters, already use virtual private networks, which can help disguise web browsing habits from authorities, to help circumvent monitoring by police. Additionally, in May, as the news of the national security law was first trickling out, Google searches for “VPN” spiked in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not subject to the internet censorship of China’s Great Firewall, though some fear the effects the security law will have on digital freedom. A freelance programmer from Hong Kong who has participated in the pro-democracy protests and worked with the OTF in the past says:

Hong Kong protesters get really geeky about the tools they use. It’s always looming in the minds of Hong Kongers. It’s a place that has one country, two internets, but everybody is scared that we won’t.

US support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is a touchy subject. During the 2019 protests, protesters openly called for foreign intervention and waved US flags at demonstrations. But the Chinese government has frequently claimed that “foreign forces” are behind the protests. Assistance so far, when it has come, has come from bodies at arm’s length from the US government like the OTF and the National Endowment for Democracy, another non-profit predominantly funded by Congress, which spent about $643k on Hong Kong programs in 2019. These programs are described as fostering civil society in Hong Kong. The NED says it has not sent aid to protesters. In December, China announced sanctions against the NED and several other US-based non-profits which it said “strongly instigate extremely violent criminal activities.” The OTF has so far evaded Chinese sanctions, although activists fear the new national security law could criminalize protesters’ ties with foreign organizations if authorities consider them to be damaging to national security. But now the OTF finds itself paralyzed by its own leadership at what current and former insiders say is a critical time. Libby Liu, the OTF’s former CEO, who resigned on Jun 13 in response to the funding freeze, says:

With the national security law looming, Hong Kong protesters are afraid that any speech or activity that they are involved in could be deemed criminal under this new law, because the CCP is very vague in its wording and expansive in its application, historically, of these laws. We have several projects housed in Hong Kong. So those people could be caught up in the net that says taking US government funds is a subversive behavior, since the CCP has already found those things to fall within subversive activity or a risk to national security.

So far, Beijing has not released the full draft text of the security law. The Jun 9 email announcing the freeze on funding included a line asking urgent exemptions to be raised with senior USAGM staff. In response, OTF staff sent an email requesting all their pending contracts, including the Hong Kong funding, be exempted. As of Jun 25, they had not received a response to their request and the freeze is still in place, two people with knowledge of the matter told TIME. Four days after she resigned, Liu was fired and prevented from serving her month’s notice, as she had planned. Laura Cunningham, the OTF’s principal director, was also fired. On Tuesday, the OTF filed a federal lawsuit arguing Pack lacked the legal authority to fire OTF staff and freeze funding. In a statement to TIME on Thursday, USAGM declined to comment on the pending litigation, but about Pack’s decision to fire senior staff, said:

All of the actions that CEO Michael Pack took are legal, and he stands by them.

The firings are part of a broader shakeup at USAGM, in what insiders fear is part of a plan to turn the agency into a more overt propaganda operation for the US government. In early May, Trump criticized Voice of America for what he said was the broadcaster’s failure to take a hard line on US adversaries. He then pushed the Senate, which had delayed approving Pack for the role for two years, to confirm him. Upon his confirmation, Pack also fired the heads of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and two of USAGM’s other international broadcasting agencies. The two most senior staff members at Voice of America quit in anticipation of Pack’s arrival. As well as clearing most senior staff, Pack replaced the bipartisan board overseeing the agency and stacked it with conservatives. The USAGM official who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity said:

The Trump Administration has, I think, felt like either their positions are not being represented fairly, or that the agency should be doing more advocacy of their positions. The fear now is that the political leadership thinks of this more as a messaging tool for the Trump Administration.

Meanwhile, as opposition to the national security law continues in Hong Kong, a segment of the US government’s behind-the-scenes support has been on pause for more than two weeks. Liu tells Time:

The people in Hong Kong are so well-prepared. They know what the threat is, and they have been protesting for over a year. They are all trying to get ready. And we can’t help them get ready if we can’t be in business.

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