Internet Privacy, Funded By Spies

By Yasha Levine

Originally published on on March 1, 2015.

For the past few months I've been covering U.S. government funding of popular Internet privacy tools like Tor, CryptoCat and Open Whisper Systems. During my reporting, one agency in particular keeps popping up: An agency with one of those really bland names that masks its wild, bizarre history: the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG.

The BBG was formed in 1999 and runs on a $721 million annual budget. It reports directly to Secretary of State John Kerry and operates like a holding company for a host of Cold War-era CIA spinoffs and old school "psychological warfare" projects: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Martí, Voice of America, Radio Liberation from Bolshevism (since renamed "Radio Liberty”) and a dozen other government-funded radio stations and media outlets pumping out pro-American propaganda across the globe.

Today, the Congressionally-funded federal agency is also one of the biggest backers of grassroots and open-source Internet privacy technology. These investments started in 2012, when the BBG launched the “Open Technology Fund” (OTF) — an initiative housed within and run by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a premier BBG property that broadcasts into communist countries like North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, China and Myanmar. The BBG endowed Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund with a multimillion dollar budget and a single task: “to fulfill the U.S. Congressional global mandate for Internet freedom.”

It's already a mouthful of proverbial Washington alphabet soup  — Congress funds BBG to fund RFA to fund OTF — but, regardless of which sub-group ultimately writes the check, the important thing to understand is that all this federal government money flows, directly or indirectly, from the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Between 2012 and 2014, Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund poured more than $10 million into Internet privacy projects big and small: open-source encrypted communication apps, next-generation secure email initiatives, anti-censorship mesh networking platforms, encryption security audits, secure cloud hosting, a network of “high-capacity” Tor exit nodes and even an anonymous Tor-based tool for leakers and whistleblowers that competed with Wikileaks.

Though many of the apps and tech backed by Radio Free Asia's OTF are unknown to the general public, they are highly respected and extremely popular among the anti-surveillance Internet activist crowd. OTF-funded apps have been recommended by Edward Snowden, covered favorably by ProPublica and The New York Times' technology reporters, and repeatedly promoted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Everyone seems to agree that OTF-funded privacy apps offer some of the best protection from government surveillance you can get. In fact, just about all the featured open-source apps on EFF’s recent “Secure Messaging Scorecard” were funded by OTF.

Here’s a small sample of what the Broadcasting Board of Governors funded (through Radio Free Asia and then through the Open Technology Fund) between 2012 and 2014:

  • Open Whisper Systems, maker of free encrypted text and voice mobile apps like TextSecure and Signal/RedPhone, got a generous $1.35-million infusion. (Facebook recently started using Open Whisper Systems to secure its WhatsApp messages.)
  • CryptoCat, an encrypted chat app made by Nadim Kobeissi and promoted by EFF, received $184,000.
  • LEAP, an email encryption startup, got just over $1 million. LEAP is currently being used to run secure VPN services at, the radical anarchist communication collective.
  • A Wikileaks alternative called GlobaLeaks (which was endorsed by the folks at Tor, including Jacob Appelbaum) received just under $350,000.
  • The Guardian Project — which makes an encrypted chat app called ChatSecure, as well a mobile version of Tor called Orbot — got $388,500.
  • The Tor Project received over $1 million from OTF to pay for security audits, traffic analysis tools and set up fast Tor exit nodes in the Middle East and South East Asia.
In 2014, Congress massively upped the BBG's "Internet freedom" budget to $25 million, with half of that money flowing through RFA and into the Open Technology Fund. This $12.75 million represented a three-fold increase in OTF's budget from 2013 — a considerable expansion for an outfit that was just a few years old. Clearly, it's doing something that the government likes. A lot.

With those resources, the Open Technology Fund's mother-agency, Radio Free Asia, plans to create a vertically integrated incubator for budding privacy technologists around the globe — providing everything from training and mentorship, to offering them a secure global cloud hosting environment to run their apps, to legal assistance.

Radio Free Asia's OTF operates its own “secure cloud” infrastructure, which grantees can use to safely deploy their anti-surveillance apps — with server nodes in Turkey, Cambodia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Amsterdam and Washington, D.C. It also runs a “legal lab” which provides free legal services to projects with OTF funding. The Open Technology Fund even runs a “Rapid Response Fund” providing “emergency support” (including funding and technical help) to privacy projects, protecting privacy services against DDoS attacks and other malicious assaults by hackers and hostile governments.

And then there are the many academic programs underwritten by the Open Technology Fund, including six month fellowships that pay a $4,000 stipend at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

Silicon Valley has opened its doors to the Open Technology Fund. In 2014, OTF launched a coordinated project with Dropbox and Google to make free, easy-to-use privacy tools, and Facebook announced it was incorporating the underlying encryption technology of one of OTF's flagship projects — OpenWhisper Systems — into its WhatsApp text messaging service.

Equally important is the cultural affinity: Radio Free Asia and OTF seemed to really get the hacktivists and the open-source crypto community. Its day-to-day operations are run by Dan Meredith, a young guy who used to work at Al-Jazeera in Qatar as a "technologist" and who is an alumnus of academic and think-tank privacy-activist circles. Meredith isn't your typical stuffy State Department suit, he's a departure from the picture in most people's heads of the sort of person who'd lead a US government project with major foreign policy implications. He's fluent in the crypto/open-source techie lingo that those in the grassroots community can identify with. Under Meredith's watch, the Open Technology Fund passes itself off as a grassroots outfit with a lo-fi look and feel. Its homepage even features a cute 8-bit YouTube video outlining its do-gooder mission of using "public funds to support Internet freedom projects" which promote "human rights and open societies."

Readers might find it odd that a US government agency established as a way to launder the image of various shady propaganda outfits (more on that soon) is now keen to fund technologies designed to protect us from the US government. Moreover, it might seem curious that its money would be so warmly welcomed by some of the Internet's fiercest antigovernment activists.

But, as folks in the open-source privacy community will tell you, funding for open-source encryption/anti-surveillance tech has been hard to come by. So they've welcomed money from Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund with open pockets. Developers and groups submitted their projects for funding, while libertarians and anti-government/anti-surveillance activists enthusiastically joined OTF's advisory council, sitting alongside representatives from Google and the US State Department, tech lobbyists, and military consultants.

But why is a federally-funded CIA spinoff with decades of experience in "psychological warfare" suddenly blowing tens of millions in government funds on privacy tools meant to protect people from being surveilled by another arm of the very same government? To answer that question, we have to pull the camera back and examine how all of those Cold War propaganda outlets begat the Broadcasting Board of Governors begat Radio Free Asia begat the Open Technology Fund. The story begins in the late 1940's.

The origins of the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The Broadcasting Board of Governors traces its beginnings to the early Cold War years, as a covert propaganda project of the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency to wage "psychological warfare" against Communist regimes and others deemed a threat to US interests.

George Kennan — the key architect of post-WWII foreign policy — pushed for expanding the role of covert peacetime programs. And so, in 1948, National Security Council Directive 10/2 officially authorized the CIA to engage in “covert operations” against the Communist Menace. Clause 5 of the directive defined “covert operations” as “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.”

Propaganda quickly became one of the key weapons in the CIA's covert operations arsenal. The agency established and funded radio stations, newspapers, magazines, historical societies, emigre “research institutes,” and cultural programs all over Europe. In many cases, it funneled money to outfits run and staffed by known World War II war criminals and Nazi collaborators, both in Europe and here in the United States.

Christopher Simpson, author of “Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Destructive Impact on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy”, details the extent of these “psychological warfare projects”:

CIA-funded psychological warfare projects employing Eastern European émigrés became major operations during the 1950s, consuming tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. . . .This included underwriting most of the French Paix et Liberté movement, paying the bills of the German League for Struggle Against Inhumanity , and financing a half dozen free jurists associations, a variety of European federalist groups, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, magazines, news services, book publishers, and much more. These were very broad programs designed to influence world public opinion at virtually every level, from illiterate peasants in the fields to the most sophisticated scholars in prestigious universities. They drew on a wide range of resources: labor unions, advertising agencies, college professors, journalists, and student leaders, to name a few. [emphasis added]

In Europe, the CIA set up “Radio Free Europe” and “Radio Liberation From Bolshevism” (later renamed "Radio Liberty"), which beamed propaganda in several languages into the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. The CIA later expanded its radio propaganda operations into Asia, targeting communist China, North Korea and Vietnam. The spy agency also funded several radio projects aimed at subverting leftist governments in Central and South America, including Radio Free Cuba and Radio Swan — which was run by the CIA and employed some of the same Cuban exiles that took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Even today, the CIA boasts that these early "psychological warfare" projects “would become one of the longest running and successful covert action campaigns ever mounted by the United States.”

Officially, the CIA’s direct role in this global "psychological warfare" project diminished in the 1970s, after the spy agency's ties to Cold War propaganda arms like Radio Free Europe were exposed. Congress agreed to take over funding of these projects from the CIA, and eventually Washington expanded them into a massive federally-funded propaganda apparatus.

The names of the various CIA spinoffs and nonprofits changed over the years, culminating in a 1999 reorganization under President Bill Clinton which created the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a parent holding company to group new broadcasting operations around the world together with Cold War-era propaganda outfits with spooky pasts—including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Today, the BBG has a $721 million budget provided by Congress, reports to the Secretary of State and is managed by a revolving crew of neocons and military think-tank experts. Among them: Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Hudson Institute, the arch-conservative Cold War-era military think tank; and Ryan C. Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Although today's BBG is no longer covertly funded via the CIA’s black budget, its role as a soft power "psychological warfare" operation hasn’t really changed since its inception. The BBG and its subsidiaries still engage in propaganda warfare, subversion and soft-power projection against countries and foreign political movements deemed hostile to US interests. And it is still deeply intertwined with the same military and CIA-connected intelligence organizations — from USAID to DARPA to the National Endowment for Democracy.

Today, the Broadcasting Board of Governors runs a propaganda network that blankets the globe: Radio Martí (aimed at Cuba), Radio Farda (aimed at Iran), Radio Sawa (which broadcasts in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, and Sudan), Radio Azadi (targeting Afghanistan), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (which has tailored broadcasts in over a dozen languages into Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Armenia), and Radio Free Asia (which targets China, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam).

The BBG is also involved in the technology of post-Cold War, Internet-era propaganda. It has bankrolled satellite Internet access in Iran and continues to fund an SMS-based social network in Cuba called Piramideo — which is different from the failed covert Twitter clone funded by USAID that tried to spark a Cuban Spring revolution. It has contracted with an anonymity Internet proxy called SafeWeb, which had been funded by the CIA’s venture capital firm In-Q-Tel. It worked with tech outfits run by practitioners of the controversial Chinese right-wing cult, Falun Gong — whose leader believes that humans are being corrupted by invading aliens from other planets/dimensions. These companies — Dynaweb and Ultrareach — provide anti-censorship tools to Chinese Internet users. As of 2012, the BBG continued to fund them to the tune of $1.5 million a year.

As the BBG proudly outlined in a 2013 fact sheet for its "Internet Anti-Censorship" unit:

The BBG collaborates with other Internet freedom projects and organizations, including RFA's Open Technology Fund, the State Department, USAID, and DARPAs SAFER Warfighter Communications Program. IAC is also reaching out to other groups interested in Internet freedom such as Google, Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy's Center for International Media Assistance.
BBG is also one of the Tor Project's biggest funders, paying out about $3.5 million from 2008 through 2013. BBG's latest publicly-known Tor contract was finalized in mid-2012. The BBG gave Tor at least $1.2 million to improve security and drastically boost the bandwidth of the Tor network by funding over a hundred Tor nodes across the world — all part of the US government's effort to find an effective soft-power weapon that can undermine Internet censorship and control in countries hostile to US interests. (We only know about the BBG's lucrative funding of Tor thanks to the dogged efforts of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had to sue to get its FOIA requests fulfilled.)

As mentioned, last year Congress decided the BBG was doing such a good job advancing America's interests abroad that it boosted the agency's "Internet freedom" annual budget from just $1.6 million in 2011 to a whopping $25 million this year. The BBG funneled half of this taxpayer money through its Radio Free Asia subsidiary, into the "Open Technology Fund" — the "nonprofit" responsible for bankrolling many of today's popular open-source privacy and encryption apps.

Which brings me to the next starring agency in this recovered history of Washington DC's privacy technology investments: Radio Free Asia.

Radio Free Asia

The CIA launched Radio Free Asia (RFA) in 1951 as an extension of its global anti-Communist propaganda radio network. RFA beamed its signal into mainland China from a transmitter in Manila, and its operations were based on the earlier Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberation From Bolshevism model.

The CIA quickly discovered that their plan to foment political unrest in China had one major flaw: the Chinese were too poor to own radios.

Here’s a bit from a fantastic three-page spread published by The New York Times in 1977, investigating the CIA’s role in global propaganda efforts, including Radio Free Asia:

Radio Free Asia began broadcasting to mainland China in 1951 from an elaborate set of transmitters in Manila. It was an arm of the Committee for Free Asia [later changed to "The Asia Foundation"], and the C.I.A. thought of it as the beginning of an operation in the Far East that would rival Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty….

The Asia Foundation was headed for years by the late Robert Blum, who, several sources said, resigned from the C.I.A. to take it over. The foundation provided cover for at least one C.I.A. operative and carried out a variety of media-related ventures, including a program, begun in 1955, of selecting and paying the expenses of Asian journalists for a year of study in Harvard's prestigious Neiman Fellowship program….

It was only after Radio Free Asia's transmitters were operating, according to sources familiar with the case, that the C.I.A. realized that there were almost no radio receivers in private hands in mainland China. An emergency plan was drawn up.

Balloons, holding small radios tuned to Radio Free Asia's frequency, were lofted toward the mainland from the island of Taiwan, where the Chinese Nationalists had fled after the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. The plan was abandoned when the balloons were blown back to Taiwan across the Formosa Strait.

The CIA supposedly shuttered Radio Free Asia in the mid-1950s, but another Radio Free Asia reappeared a decade later, this time funded through a CIA-Moonie outfit called the Korean Culture and Freedom Foundation (KCFF) — a group based in Washington, D.C. that was run by a top figure in South Korea's state intelligence agency, Colonel Bo Hi Pak, who also served as the “principle evangelist” of cult leader Rev. Sun-Myung Moon of the Unification Church.

This new Moonie iteration of Radio Free Asia was controlled by the South Korean government, including the country’s own CIA, the "KCIA." It enjoyed high-level support from within the first Nixon Administration and even featured then-Congressman Gerald Ford on its board. According to an FBI file on Rev. Moon, Radio Free Asia “at the height of the Vietnam war produced anti-communist programs in Washington and beamed them into China, North Korea and North Vietnam.”

Radio Free Asia got busted in a widespread corruption scandal in the late 1970s, when the South Korean government was investigated for using the Moonie cult to influence US public opinion in order to keep the US military engaged against North Korea. Back in the 1970s, the Moonies were the most notorious cult in the United States, accused of abducting and "brainwashing" countless American youths. How it was that the CIA's Radio Free Asia was handed off to the Moonies was never quite explained, but given laws banning the CIA (or the KCIA) from engaging in psychological warfare in the US, the obvious thing to do was to bury Radio Free Asia long enough for everyone to forget about it.

No sooner had Radio Free Asia vanished amid scandal than it reappeared again, Terminator-like, in the 1990s — this time as a legit “independent” nonprofit wholly controlled by the BBG and funded by Congress.

Although this latest version of Radio Free Asia was supposed to be a completely new organization and was no longer as covert and B-movie spooky, its objectives and tactics remained exactly the same: To this day it beams propaganda into the same Communist countries, including North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, and Burma, and fiddles around in the same sorts of spooky adventures.

For instance: In 2011, The New York Times revealed that Radio Free Asia, along with the State Department, was involved in burying cellphones inside North Korea on its border with China, so that North Koreans could use the RFA cellphones to report to the West on conditions inside their country. That same year, following the death of Kim Jong Il, Radio Free Asia “kicked into 24/7 emergency mode” to beam non-stop coverage of the death into North Korea in the hopes of triggering a mass uprising. BBG officials clung to the hope that, bit by bit, Radio Free Asia’s stream of anti-Communist propaganda would bring democracy and freedom to North Korea. They like to cite a study showing that “elite” defectors from North Korea were increasingly listening to Radio Free Asia, as proof that their efforts are working.

Radio Free Asia and Anti-government Hacktivists

Which brings us up to the present, when the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Radio Free Asia and its offshoot, the Open Technology Fund, find themselves in bed with many of the very same privacy activist figures whom the public regards as the primary adversaries of outfits like Radio Free Asia and the BBG. And it's technology that brings together these supposed adversaries — the US National Security State on the one hand, and "hacktivist", "anti-government" libertarian privacy activists on the other:

“I’m proud to be a volunteer OTF advisor,” declared Cory Doctorow, editor of BoingBoing and a well-known libertarian anti-surveillance activist/author.

"Happy to have joined the Open Technology Fund's new advisory council,” tweeted Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (York recently admitted that the OTF's "Internet freedom" agenda is, at its core, about regime change, but bizarrely argued that it didn't matter.)

In 2012, just a few months after Radio Free Asia's 24/7 propaganda blitz into North Korea failed to trigger regime change, RFA sent folks from the Tor Project — including core developer Jacob Appelbaum (pictured above) —  into Burma, just as the military dictatorship was finally agreeing to hand political power over to US-backed pro-democracy politicians. The stated purpose of Appelbaum's RFA-funded expedition was to probe Burma’s Internet system from within and collect information on its telecommunications infrastructure — which was then used to compile a report for Western politicians and “international investors” interested in penetrating Burma’s recently opened markets. Here you can see Appelbaum’s visa — published in the report as evidence of what you needed to do to buy a SIM card in Burma.

Burma is a curious place for American anti-surveillance activists funded by Radio Free Asia to travel to, considering that it has long been a target of US regime-change campaigns. In fact, the guru of pro-Western "color revolutions," Gene Sharp, wrote his famous guide to non-violent revolutions, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, initially as a guide for Burma’s opposition movement, in order to help it overthrow the military junta in the late 1980s. Sharp had crossed into Burma illegally to train opposition activists there — all under the protection and sponsorship of the US government and one Col. Robert Helvey, a military intelligence officer.

Jacob Appelbaum's willingness to work directly for an old CIA cutout like Radio Free Asia in a nation long targeted for regime-change is certainly odd, to say the least. Particularly since Appelbaum made a big public show recently claiming that, though it pains him that Tor takes so much money from the US military, he would never take money from something as evil as the CIA.

Ignorance is bliss.

Appelbaum's financial relationships with various CIA spinoffs like Radio Free Asia and the BBG go further. From 2012 through 2013, Radio Free Asia transferred about $1.1 million to Tor in the form of grants and contracts. This million dollars comes on top of another $3.4 million Tor received from Radio Free Asia's parent agency, the BBG, starting from 2007.

But Tor and Appelbaum are not the only ones happy to take money from the BBG/RFA.

Take computer researcher/privacy activist Harry Halpin, for example. Back in November of 2014, Halpin smeared me as a conspiracy theorist, and then falsely accused me and Pando of being funded by the CIA — simply because I reported on Tor’s government funding. Turns out that Halpin's next-generation secure communications outfit, called LEAP, took more than $1 million from Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund. Somewhat ironically, LEAP's technology powers the VPN services of RiseUp.Net, the radical anarchist tech collective that provides activists with email and secure communications tools (and forces you to sign a thinly veiled anti-Communist pledge before giving you an account).

Then there's the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian. A few months ago, he had viciously attacked me and Pando for reporting on Tor's US government funding. But just the other day, Soghoian went on Democracy Now, and in the middle of a segment criticizing the U.S. government's runaway hacking and surveillance programs, recommended that people use a suite of encrypted text and voice apps funded by the very same intelligence-connected U.S. government apparatus he was denouncing. Specifically, Soghoian recommended apps made by Open Whisper Systems, which got $1.35 million from Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund from 2013 through 2014.

He told Amy Goodman:

"These are best-of-breed free applications made by top security researchers, and actually subsidized by the State Department and by the U.S. taxpayer. You can download these tools today. You can make encrypted telephone calls. You can send encrypted text messages. You can really up your game and protect your communications.”
When Goodman wondered why the U.S. government would fund privacy apps, he acknowledged that this technology is a soft-power weapon of U.S. empire but then gave a very muddled and naive answer:
CHRISTOPHER SOGHOIAN: Because they’re tools of foreign policy. You know, the U.S. government isn’t this one machine with one person, you know, dictating all of its policies. You have these different agencies squabbling, sometimes doing contradictory things. The U.S. government, the State Department has spent millions of dollars over the last 10 years to fund the creation and the deployment and improvement to secure communications and secure computing tools that were intended to allow activists in China and Iran to communicate, that are intended to allow journalists to do their thing and spread news about democracy without fear of interception and surveillance by the Chinese and other governments.

AMY GOODMAN: But maybe the U.S. government has a way to break in.

CHRISTOPHER SOGHOIAN: Well, you know, it’s possible that they’ve discovered flaws, but, you know, they have—the U.S. government hasn’t been writing the software. They’ve been giving grants to highly respected research teams, security researchers and academics, and these tools are about the best that we have. You know, I agree. I think it’s a little bit odd that, you know, the State Department’s funding this, but these tools aren’t getting a lot of funding from other places. And so, as long as the State Department is willing to write them checks, I’m happy that the Tor Project and Whisper Systems and these other organizations are cashing them. They are creating great tools and great technology that can really improve our security. And I hope that they’ll get more money in the future.

It's convenient and nice to believe that one hand of the U.S. National Security State doesn't know what the other hand is doing — especially when the livelihoods of you and your colleagues depends on it. But as the long and dark covert intelligence history of the Broadcasters Board of Governors and Radio Free Asia so clearly shows, this thinking is naive and wrong. It also shows just how effectively the U.S. National Security State brought its opposition into the fold.

You'd think that anti-surveillance activists like Chris Soghoian, Jacob Appelbaum, Cory Doctorow and Jillian York would be staunchly against outfits like BBG and Radio Free Asia, and the role they have played — and continue to play — in working with defense and corporate interests to project and impose U.S. power abroad. Instead, these radical activists have knowingly joined the club, and in doing so, have become willing pitchmen for a wing of the very same U.S. National Security State they so adamantly oppose.

* * *

To learn more about the links between the US government and Silicon Valley, support Yasha Levine's Kickstarter project Surveillance Valley: The Rise of the Google-Military Complex

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