Hillary’s Little Startup: How the U.S. Is Using Technology to Aid Syria’s Rebels
Abu Ghassan looks more like a hipster than a revolutionary. Decked out in a pink shirt and black jeans, he clutches a pack of cigarettes and begins to talk hesitantly about his activities. He is eager to get back to the beleaguered city of Homs in Syria but quickly warms to questions about how he learned to fight Bashar Assad with an AK-47, a video camera and the Internet—and how Americans helped turn him into a cyberwarrior.
Abu Ghassan (not his real name) told TIME on June 8 that he has been a two-fisted warrior for a while—with the scars to show for it. While filming an antiregime demonstration in December in Homs, he heard a blast and was told that two government tanks were headed toward the crowd. Abu Ghassan, 26, had to decide: Keep filming or pick up a weapon? He decided to do both, grabbing an AK-47 from his car and setting down his video camera in an elevated spot to catch the action. As he ran ahead, an armored Land Rover swerved in front of the crowd, and regime soldiers opened fire. Abu Ghassan and fighters with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force protecting the demonstrators, fired back to allow the civilians to scramble for cover. As bullets whizzed back and forth, Abu Ghassan was clipped in the shoulder by shrapnel. “I don’t know how I didn’t get more injured or killed,” he says.
As the opposition was then just learning to do, Abu Ghassan uploaded the combat video to the Internet. Soon after, local dissident leaders picked the former engineer to go abroad for even-more-sophisticated training in computer encryption, circumvention of government firewalls and secure use of mobile phones—courtesy of the U.S. State Department. The training has helped give the rebels the upper hand in one front in the battle against Syria’s President. Even as the Assad regime’s army crushes the opposition on the ground, the dictator has been losing the war online.
In the process, the Obama Administration has tiptoed across an invisible line. Washington has said it will not actively support the Syrian opposition in its bid to oust Assad. Officially, the U.S. says it abides by the U.N. process led by Kofi Annan and does not condone arms sales to opposition groups as long as there are U.N. observers in Syria. Nevertheless, as U.S. officials have revealed to Time, the Obama Administration has been providing media-technology training and support to Syrian dissidents by way of small nonprofits like the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House. Viral videos of alleged atrocities, like the footage Abu Ghassan produced, have made Assad one of the most reviled men on the planet, helping turn the Arab League against him and embarrassing his few remaining allies almost daily. “If the [U.S.] government is involved in Syria, the government isn’t going to take direct responsibility for it,” says Lawrence Lessig, director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “The tools that you deploy in Internet freedom interfere with tools deployed by an existing government, and that can be perceived as an act of aggression.”
The program actually began four years ago with a different target: China. In 2008, Michael Horowitz, a longtime religious-liberty advocate, went to his friend Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and suggested setting aside funds to help Falun Gong, a religious group that Beijing has labeled a dangerous cult. The money was supposed to help the dissidents distribute software to jump China’s massive firewall and organize online as well as communicate freely with the outside world. Wolf succeeded in appropriating $15 million. But U.S. diplomats feared the move would derail relations with Beijing, and little money was spent. Then the 2009–10 Iranian protests and last year’s Arab Spring made Internet freedom a much more fashionable term in Washington. Congress soon forked over an additional $57 million to State to spend in the next three years. The money is split among three areas: education and training; anonymization, which masks users’ identities, usually through encryption; and circumvention technology, which allows users to overcome government censors so that their work—and that of repressive regimes—can be seen worldwide.
Louis D. Brandeis