Article by Rachael Tackett
Much heralded in the media, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is depicted as championing digital civil liberties and fighting the US government’s mass surveillance. EFF also receives money from the same government that it claims to fight.
The Saga of Radio Free Asia
In the early 1950s, Radio Free Asia was originally a covert CIA project to help overthrow Communist regimes in Asia. In order to conceal the true source of its funding, Radio Free Asia set up a fundraising campaign in the US, called the Crusade for Freedom. The goal of the fundraising campaign was to supply funds to “…expand the facilities of Radio Free Asia to carry the battle to China’s Red masters behind the bamboo curtain…”. In a blatant lie, the director of Radio Free Asia, John W. Elwood, even told the press, “Because we have no government ties, we can say anything we damn please.”
The CIA quickly realized that many people in China did not personally own radios. Instead, listening privately to Western broadcasts inside mainland China was difficult, since most radios were in communal areas. The CIA attached radios to balloons in hopes that they would reach mainland China, but the winds shifted and the radios blew back towards Taiwan. After several years of running into difficulties, the CIA shut down the Radio Free Asia project.
According to a news report, the Korean Cultural and Freedom Foundation (KCFF) created a new Radio Free Asia in 1966 to continue broadcasting anti-Communist propaganda to Asia. This new Radio Free Asia was operated by members of the Unification Church. The Unification Church has been described as a cult run by Sun Myung Moon.
The Unification Church’s Radio Free Asia had strong ties to the US government. At some point in their political careers, US Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford were all involved with Radio Free Asia. In fact, during the 1950s, Truman and Eisenhower were also involved in the CIA’s original Radio Free Asia project.
According to court testimony, a Radio Free Asia fundraiser bribed a Congressman in 1967 to obtain meeting with CIA officials, but the fundraiser was blocked from further testimony due to objections by the Congressman’s defense lawyers. In 1970, a member of the US Congress received a very strange letter from President Park of Korea thanking the US government for its support of Radio Free Asia. The Congressman’s office asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) if it was involved in financing Radio Free Asia. The CIA denied providing any funding.
In the 1970s, the US Congress investigated the Unification Church. There were allegations that Radio Free Asia was involved in assisting the Korean government to influence members of the US Congress. The Unification Church and Radio Free Asia were also accused of having strong ties to the Korean intelligence service (KCIA). In Congressional testimony, Radio Free Asia was accused of soliciting donations in the US. Allegedly, some of these donations would later be diverted to funding Korean intelligence activities, namely to bribe members of the US Congress. The Unification Church also tried to keep Nixon in power during the Watergate scandal .
Sometime around 1975, it is reported that the Unification Church’s Radio Free Asia stopped broadcasting. In the early 1980s, the Unification Church’s founder was convicted in the US of filing false income tax returns and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
During a four year period in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of over one million people in Cambodia. Some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge would later be convicted of crimes against humanity in a war crimes tribunal backed by the United Nations.
In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge government from power. The Khmer Rouge fled to refugee camps in Thailand. In the 1980s, this created an on-going conflict between Vietnam and Thailand. The US government supplied Thailand with weapons, including aircraft and tanks . The US government has also been accused of supporting the Khmer Rouge against Vietnam.
In 1980, a news article described Radio Free Asia as being a joint operation between Thailand and the United States during the Vietnam War. The Thailand government used Radio Free Asia again to broadcast propaganda to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam . Another news article, appearing in 1990, described a Khmer Rouge brigade commander listening to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America in hopes of hearing news about a peace deal . It is important to note that Voice of America is the US government’s official news outlet abroad.
After the Tienanmen Square protests in China in 1989, there was growing interest in the US Congress to resurrect Radio Free Asia. Much like its namesake, the new Radio Free Asia would be dedicated to regime change, but now with a mission of the more politically palatable euphemism to “promote democratic change”. While still publicly claiming to be a private organization, this new Radio Free Asia would be created and funded by the US Congress. It was a case of déjà vu.
US Government’s “Internet Freedom”
The US Congress normally designates approximately $50 million dollars every year to internet freedom appropriations. This internet freedom funding is normally shared between three US government agencies: the State Department, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and USAID. A portion of the BBG’s internet freedom funding goes towards Radio Free Asia.
Some of the US government’s internet freedom funding is rather controversial. The funding goes towards supporting internet freedom projects in countries where the US government would like regime change. Think of countries such as China, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Burma, Vietnam, North Korea, Russia, etc. The US Congress has even passed legislation tying internet freedom funding to sanctions against Iran to dissuade it from pursuing nuclear weapons. USAID also caused controversy when it financed a project to create a “Cuban Twitter” in hopes of stirring unrest and an uprising against the Cuban government.
Recently, the BBG released a document in response to a public records request. Specifically, the public records request was for Radio Free Asia’s internet freedom budget proposal to the BBG. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is listed as a potential vendor on Radio Free Asia’s budget proposal. EFF confirmed by email that it is receiving money from Radio Free Asia for STARTTLs Everywhere and updates to Certbot. The STARTTLs Everywhere project aims to ensure that secure encryption is used between email servers. The Certbot project is designed as a client for EFF’s Let’s Encrypt project. The funding from Radio Free Asia is approximately $200,000.
It is difficult to track the type of government funding that EFF receives. The US Congress has passed legislation mandating greater transparency in federal government spending. Earlier this year, a public records request was sent to the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government agency in charge of accepting these funding transparency reports. In a letter, the GSA stated that it could not find any record of Radio Free Asia ever submitting a single transparency report. Since Radio Free Asia has failed to file the transparency reports, the money that Radio Free Asia gave to EFF does not appear on USASpending.gov, the US government’s funding transparency website.
Even though Radio Free Asia was created by the US Congress and is essentially controlled by the US government, Radio Free Asia insists on the fiction that it is a nonprofit organization and is exempt from the federal public records law. Due to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA 2017)(§ 310(d)), the CEO of a federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, now has the authority to directly hire and fire some Radio Free Asia employees. Despite several requests, Radio Free Asia refuses to release any records. In effect, this means that the internal records of Radio Free Asia’s bidding and contracting process for its internet freedom program are completely secret.
In June of 2015, the Inspector General for the State Department published an audit of Radio Free Asia. In order to help distribute funding for the Open Technology Fund (OTF) program, Radio Free Asia set up the OTF Advisory Council. The OTF Advisory Council was composed of people from industry, nonprofits, and universities. Two of EFF’s employees served on this OTF Advisory Council which evaluated proposed OTF projects. The Inspector General’s audit found that Radio Free Asia failed to follow federal procurement requirements and conflict-of-interest policies. The audit also states that Radio Free Asia required OTF Advisory Council members to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The type of funding which EFF received may actually be illegal. The funding which EFF receives from Radio Free Asia falls under the Smith-Mundt Act. The law prohibits the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (including Radio Free Asia) from using their funding to influence American public opinion. While incidental exposure to an American audience is technically legal, EFF is an influential American organization, and on that basis, its projects may be heavily publicized in the United States. It is difficult to understand why Radio Free Asia continues to fund domestic American organizations even though its funding is only intended to influence foreign audiences (ie. propaganda).
In response to questions about EFF receiving government funding, EFF Executive Director, Cindy Cohn stated:
“While EFF does not accept U.S. government funding directly, we do accept funds that originated with the U.S. government if they are earmarked for specific technology projects like these. EFF’s technology projects are all open source – the code can be reviewed, added to, or forked by anyone – and have a clear set of technical goals that serve the public interest. They are also publicly hosted, currently on Github. EFF guards its independence fiercely and does not accept funding that has strings attached to advance anyone else’s agenda. We are proud of the role that EFF’s technology projects play in building better, safer, and more free experience for Internet users worldwide.”
It is difficult to independently verify EFF’s statement that it does not accept funding with strings attached, because Radio Free Asia refuses to release records on its contracts.
EFF’s facebook page states that the organization “fights for freedom primarily in the courts, bringing and defending lawsuits even when that means taking on the US government or large corporations.”
The US Congress was very specific in its appropriations that the funding for internet freedom is to serve the US government’s national security and foreign policy interests abroad. Somehow, this funding continues to be directed towards domestic American organizations, such as Tor Project and Open Whisper Systems. While EFF’s government funding remains a small portion of its overall budget, it is not difficult to imagine how a conflict of interest could arise.
Will EFF be able to continue fighting the same government which it also accepts money from?
Will EFF bite the hand that feeds it?
Citations in Print
1. Patt, D. (1978, April 5). Unification Church Tried to Keep Mr Nixon in Power During the Watergate Crisis. The Times, p. 7.
2. Kelly, N. (1980, September 30). Thailand Receives US Arms Amid Reports of Vietnamese Activity. The Times, p. 7.
3. Thayer, N. (1990, July 20). Killing Fields’ Regime’s Fighters Buoyed by Battlefield Successes. The Charlotte Observer, p. 5A.
The text of this article is released into the public domain. Anyone is free to translate and republish this article. The featured picture is from Duke University Library.