Inside America’s Secret Training of Syria’s Digital Army

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Updated: 5:37 p.m.

I have a story in this week’s magazine, available online now and hitting stands this Friday, about U.S. efforts to help Syrian dissidents. The U.S. isn’t arming anybody – as Hillary Clinton on Tuesday accused Russia of doing for Syrian President Bashar Assad – but the State Department is training protesters to in the war online, giving grants to small nonprofits like the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House.

The program is not without some controversy. Taking a page from Catch Me If You Can, some of the software and hardware developers involved are only one step removed from hacktivist organizlations like Anonymous and Wikileaks. “The leap from Chinese dissidents being able to discuss the anniversary of Tiananmen Square to U.S. hackers looking to take down the U.S. electrical grid isn’t huge, technologically speaking,” says a Senate Republican aide familiar with the grants. “Some of this stuff flies a little too close to sun. [U.S.] security services get nervous about it.” And whatever methods the State Department develops for use abroad could also be used against the U.S. government at home. “Tools for foreign countries work really well here, too,” says Christopher Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher at the Center for Applied Cyber Security Research.

Another thing that makes the program controversial is its potential to interfere with more traditional diplomacy. Few Syrian dissidents now being trained come from Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s partly because the non-profits try to avoid training militants and instead focus on citizen journalists – people they hope won’t be running around with AK-47s. But by not training the Islamist groups, the U.S. risks appearing as if it’s picking political favorites.

There is also a fine line between investing millions of dollars in freedom of Internet, speech and press, and openly advocating for regime change. Iran cited Obama’s executive order last month imposing sanctions on any company found giving technology to Syria and Iran that could be used to commit human rights abuses as evidence that his true agenda in Iran is regime change. U.S. diplomats negotiating with Iran to give up its nuclear program swore otherwise.

In the months I spent researching this story, everyone I spoke with agreed that Hillary Clinton deserved credit for investing in an area that had previously been neglected. In fact, many worried that when she leaves the State Department at the end of the year, U.S. policy could revert back to “dinosaur diplomacy,” as some hackivists call it. But after four years, the program seems fairly well entrenched.

Twenty years after Tiananmen Square, where hardly anyone in China outside Beijing had any idea what had transpired, the Chinese could do little last month to block the news of blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape. In Russia, Vladimir Putin for months has grit his teeth at the proliferation of online videos documenting police harassment of Kremlin protesters. And in Iran, the death of music student Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, chronicled by a smart phone video posted online, further fueled widespread protests. In the Internet age, people aren’t just fighting to open up nations, but information too. The State Department is part of that battle.

Clarification: A previous version of this article unintentionally implied the non-profit groups have links to Anonymous and Wikileaks. It is in fact technology developers who have these ties. We regret any confusion.