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US funds secret 'internet in a suitcase' for dissidents

James Glanz and John Markoff (SMH) | June 13, 2011
The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy "shadow" internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

Details of the network, which the military named the Palisades project, are scarce, but current and former military and civilian officials said it relied in part on mobile towers placed on protected US bases. A large tower on the Kandahar air base serves as a base station or data collection point for the network, officials said.

A senior US official said the towers were close to being up and running in the south and described the effort as a kind of 9/11 system that would be available to anyone with a mobile phone.

By shutting down mobile phone service, the Taliban had found a potent strategic tool in its asymmetric battle with US and Afghan security forces.

The United States is widely understood to use mobile phone networks in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for intelligence gathering. And the ability to silence the network was also a powerful reminder to the local populace that the Taliban retained control over some of the most vital organs of the nation.

When asked about the system, Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, would only confirm the existence of a project to create what he called an "expeditionary cellular communication service" in Afghanistan.

He said the project was being carried out in collaboration with the Afghan government in order to "restore 24/7 cellular access."

"As of yet the program is not fully operational, so it would be premature to go into details," Dorrian said.

Dorrian declined to release cost figures. Estimates by US military and civilian officials ranged widely, from $US50 million to $US250 million. A senior official said that Afghan officials, who anticipate taking over US bases when troops pull out, have insisted on an elaborate system.

"The Afghans wanted the Cadillac plan, which is pretty expensive," the official said.

Broad subversive effort

In May 2009, a North Korean defector named Kim met officials at the US Consulate in Shenyang, a Chinese city about 190 kilometres from North Korea, according to a diplomatic cable. Officials wanted to know how Kim, who was active in smuggling others out of the country, communicated across the border.

"Kim would not go into much detail," the cable says, but did mention the burying of Chinese mobile phones "on hillsides for people to dig up at night".

Kim said Dandong, China, and the surrounding Jilin Province "were natural gathering points for cross-border cell phone communication and for meeting sources".

The mobile phones are able to pick up signals from towers in China, said Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, the US-financed broadcaster, who confirmed their existence and said her organisation uses the calls to collect information for broadcasts as well.

 

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