If you read nothing else on Wednesday, I hope you catch this genuinely epic saga from David Folkenflik at NPR. I freely admit that my cyber knowledge and my general tech savvy can be measured with an eyedropper, but I know a good story when I read one, and any tale that includes Falun Gong, Steve Bannon, several incomprehensible acronyms, and the overall incompetence of the previous administration* is good to be going on with, as they say.
And specifically, it involves a fierce, months-long battle over whether the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the U.S. State Department should subsidize software developed by adherents of Falun Gong. The decision to prioritize this software stripped money intended for critical apps from a federal fund designed to bolster technology vital to dissidents overseas, officials say. On top of that, once approved for funding, over a six-month period the software served a grand total of four people. That's right, four.
The whole fight was, in short, bananas.
No argument here.
"Any time a journalist or human rights defender - whether they're in China or Iran or Russia - picks up one of our technologies, we know and they know that they are being protected as best as they possibly can," says Laura Cunningham, who was fired as president of the Open Technology Fund under Trump and then restored to her position. "To push OTF to reduce those standards around security and effectiveness? It's not just watering down or pushing aside laws and regulations. It is literally putting people's lives in jeopardy.” The State Department's inspector general has been investigating a whistleblower's allegations - first being made public by NPR in this story - that the concerted effort to divert funds to the Falun Gong software Ultrasurf was a criminal conspiracy.
At issue is the laudable effort to develop software by which activists and ordinary citizens can undermine the programs authoritarian governments use to control the internet, and to do so without leaving any trace that the governments might use to find and punish the users. One of the projects was a platform called Ultrasurf, developed years ago by the adherents of Falun Gong in China. And from there, the whole story unspools like Robert Ludlum rewritten by Douglas Adams, with a tangy Trumpian aftertaste as well.
Here is where a character named Robert Pack enters our drama. He was appointed to head the United States Agency for Global Media. Pack lobbied hard for Ultrasurf from his position at the USAGM, and he was closely allied to Steve Bannon.
Pack's prospects had accelerated once the White House launched an attack on the Voice of America for its coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China. Bannon, who had advised Trump during the 2016 campaign and in the White House, told The Washington Post he had pushed for Pack because VOA and its sister networks should be "on point" with Trump's foreign policy - especially his hardline tack against the Chinese communist regime. "He's my guy," Bannon said of Pack, with whom he had worked on two documentaries years earlier. He told Vox, "Pack's over there to clean house.”
I don’t want to spoil the rest of the saga. But rest assured, the whole thing is another lengthy parable of the incompetence and cronyism of the previous administration, and the sad consequences thereof.
"I have had to distance myself from my family quite a bit to increase their safety," the Iranian-born democracy activist Nima Fatemi told Newshour. His software, Kandoo, is designed to protect protesters against the regime. It lost its funding from OTF after Pack took control. "Secure communication is the step zero of any change in any society," he said.
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