Hundreds of pages of detailed information on U.S. government programs to help Cuban dissident leaders may have fallen into the hands of the Cuban regime due to a failure to encrypt documents sent to Havana, a mistake one official called “an amazingly stupid thing to do.”
According to the Miami Herald, the documents in question were part of an application for a $6 million program by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help develop a robust civil society through the training of dissidents and non-governmental leaders. They were not classified documents, but one USAID spokesman described the status of the intelligence as “discreet.” The documents in question included heavily detailed American activity in the island nation, including “some names of possible trainees and venues where they might be trained.” While not necessary, it is often customary to name some names to build credibility with the Agency. The Herald describes the reaction of those working on the documents to the failure to encrypt them on their way to Havana as “incredulous.”
Cuba’s half-century-long dictatorial regime has not been hospitable to USAID’s humanitarian programs in the past, to put it mildly. The most prominent case of hostility towards the agency in recent memory is the case against USAID contractor Alan Gross, sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing cell phones and internet equipment to Jewish Cubans on the island with the intention of helping them more easily communicate with the outside world. Cuba’s prison system is of the lowest caliber–where conditions are, according to Human Rights Watch, “overcrowded, unhygienic, and unhealthy, leading to extensive malnutrition and illness.” Cuban political prisoners often die under suspicious circumstances, and the government has often been openly hostile to USAID’s humanitarian goals.
As to this particular breach, Cuban state media has already attempted to accuse the Herald of “doing damage control” and “trivializing the gravity of the events,” while decrying the “secret war from Washington” on the island. It has not, however, commented on whether state government officials have had access to or read the unprotected documents. Given the ease with which governments can often breach unencrypted messages and the government’s disposition towards the program, however, it appears officials are assuming the documents are in their possession.
Given the high-profile national security secrets leaking to the public on a seemingly daily basis, the story of non-classified but nonetheless potentially valuable government information being put in the grasp of the wrong hands appears trivial. That the Cuban government has not confirmed the story (and don’t expect them to) only adds to the collective shrug swelling like a tide of apathy to drown the story. That it is the Cuban government at all–not Russia, not the Middle East–will trigger the familiar sense of whimsy with which American media treats Latin America. “It’s not a serious country spying on us this time,” you can almost hear the nation’s cable news producers sign collectively, “it’s just Latin America.”
The relative threat level of this potential security leak should not be the focus of the coverage, however. What matters here is not so much that the Cuban government could have looked at detailed missives on how USAID helps dissidents in the country, though that, obviously, is alarming. What matters is that a government agency committed the intelligence world’s most unforgivable sin: sending official information through unencrypted means. It may have been humanitarian aid to Cuba this time–information the snide may crow only affects dissidents in a banana republic–but what guarantees that the next agency to make an encryption mistake won’t be sending confidential information, and won’t be talking about something that may endanger many more lives than this? Why make the standard another country’s ability to hurt us, rather than our own ability to protect ourselves? Given the alarming catalogue of American state security breaches in recent memory, looking to the enemy won’t solve the problem–whether it be traitors on the inside or those looking to harm us from without.