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Yasha Levine

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March 3, 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.”