Approximately forty people gathered in a conference room in Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California on a January day in 2012. They represented a cross section of private cybersecurity firms, non-profit organizations, corporations, and the U.S. government. Their mission for an entire afternoon, a closely guarded secret until now, was to discuss the problem of Iranian censorship on the Internet and devise new and creative methods to open pipelines of communications within the country for its citizens. One of the meeting participants was Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Through a series of interviews with multiple sources, this column has assembled pieces of a complicated story involving the work of a secretive non-profit group – the Democracy Council – who over the course of the past several years has worked quietly behind the scenes to further U.S. policy interests in the Middle East. They have done so with the cooperation of major technology firms such as Google, the quiet support of private cybersecurity contractors, and direct funding from the U.S. government. That their work would involve Brin, one of the most influential corporate leaders in the world today, underscores the high stakes nature of international cyber-freedom work that has largely operated out of the public eye.
According to people with direct knowledge of the January, 2012 meeting, the gathering was organized and led by Google. In addition to multiple staff members of the Democracy Council, the meeting at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California included representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and a number of Google executives. Private contractors within the secretive Internet security community were also represented including representatives from Project Vigilant (a group covered previously by this column), Team Cymru, and C5i.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of the discussion, all of the participants were sworn to strict non-disclosure agreements. Brin himself participated in most of the meeting from his office on the Google campus via in-house video telecast. According to sources, he did not say much during the discussion which lasted most of the afternoon. However, Brin did join the meeting in person near the end and facilitated a discussion about the two to three most important things that could be done to help the cause of improving the flow of communications for the citizens of Iran.
A spokesperson for Google declined all comment for this story.
A primary focus of the meeting was on a set of key tasks and programs under development by the Democracy Council as part of a $1.1 million grant the group received from USAID in September, 2011. Public government funding records show that the grant was for “Fostering Internet Freedom.”
In response to two Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to the grant, USAID released 74 pages of material, most of which contains standard government contract language. Pages containing specific information about budget, responsible government officials, or even what the grant was for were completely blacked out. A portion of the heavily redacted USAID documents can be found in a dedicated link created for this Examiner story.
Although USAID has refused to divulge any meaningful information about their Democracy Council grant, interviews with numerous sources and analysis of internal use memoranda, reveal a highly ambitious plan to deploy a “virtual sanctuary” for Iranians. The Democracy Council’s grant was based on a March, 2011 request for proposals authored by Gwendolyn Ruffin of USAID which sought projects “that will use new media and technology to improve access to information and communication tools for Iranians.”
A request for comment by Ruffin on the 2011 proposal process and funding for the Democracy Council was denied. Two other USAID officials associated with funding the program – Sharon Welch and Terry Ellis – were also not available for comment. Reached directly by this column, Ellis would only say “I am no longer involved with that program.”
A spokesperson for USAID said that “USAID does not comment on specific projects without the consent of its partners.”
Much of the discussion at Google in January of 2012 focused on how to use news media and technology to improve information access for Iranian citizens. There was also a great deal of discussion about the creation of a website, with Google’s help, that would allow Iranians to freely communicate about governing principles and justice. These were both part of the requirements under the grant awarded to the Democracy Council by USAID.
At one point during the afternoon, the discussion turned to a problem the U.S. was having with a particular individual in Iran who was blocking efforts to open Internet channels. When one of the meeting participants asked “Well, why don’t you just shoot the guy?” an uncomfortable silence fell over the room and attendees from the U.S. government shifted nervously in their seats. Brin said nothing.
But the biggest issue addressed that afternoon was how to allow people outside of Iran to communicate via email with citizens of the country and avoid government monitoring. One participant suggested that perhaps Google could tie their list of top search terms to one in particular that would open an encrypted email site which would permit unmonitored communication. None of the sources contacted for this story could confirm that this idea was ever implemented.
The Democracy Council was originally formed in 1999 and is based in Los Angeles. The group’s website characterizes their role as the “primary conduit for policy-makers to the internal leadership and groups which broadly comprise opposition elements and civil society organizations throughout the Middle East.”
An analysis of the Council’s publicly disclosed tax returns from 2007 to 2011 shows that the group has received nearly $12 million in grants, contributions or program revenue. The vast majority of that income was devoted to “civil society strengthening initiative through technology and independent media.” Most of their funding was spent on programs involving countries in the Middle East.
In the Council’s most recent publicly available tax filing (for 2011), they disclosed a financial account in a foreign country. Curiously, the account is located in Israel.
The president of the Democracy Council is James Prince. During an interview for this column, Prince said that his group “does a lot of work that is very discreet.”
Despite a government agency’s refusal to provide information about the grant his group received in 2011, Prince claims that “we don’t do any classified work.” According to Prince, the non-profit Council helps civil society activists and human rights groups in developing countries, teaching people about Internet access issues, social networking, and cyber hygiene. “We work from inside closed societies,” said Prince.
The group keeps a low profile in the mainstream press and online media. Their website reveals little, and a media page lists one sole event that was held nearly two years ago.
Members of their board include a former chief of staff from the House Committee on International Relations, the CEO of Global Direct Telecom, the Chairman of Servicon, and faculty members from Catholic University, Pepperdine, and the University of California, Irvine.
In 2011, the leak of diplomatic cables and subsequent news reports in the Washington Post revealed that the State Department had been funneling money to Syrian exiles through the Democracy Council. A 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus disclosed that the Council had received a major government grant to run a “Syria-related program” for a “civil society strengthening initiative” which apparently included a broadcast network inside the country.
The group received attention in 2011 when they partnered with USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to improve the American International School in Gaza. An internal use document published on numerous websites includes a claim that the Democracy Council “was primarily responsible for bringing over $700 million of secreted assets back to the treasury of the Palestinian Authority.”
Two months ago, the Council received another grant from USAID for $2.4 million. According to the terms of the grant, their work is for “virtual private network enhancements for civil society.” USAID has refused to provide further details. Their 2011 grant for fostering Internet freedom in Iran expires in twenty five days.