The Cable

Tech guru Alec Ross leaves the State Department

The State Department's first-ever special advisor for innovation, Alec Ross, has stepped down and returned to the private sector after a four-year effort to bring diplomacy into the 21st century.

Known as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "tech guru" inside the department Foggy Bottom headquarters, Ross co-founded the non-profit One Economy before joining President Barack Obama's first presidential campaign as part of the technology and innovation leadership team. He joined the State Department in 2009 as one of the few Obama people in Foggy Bottom. His principal projects were "21st Century Statecraft," an effort to integrate technology into diplomacy and reach out to new communities, and "Civil Society 2.0," a project that helped more than 1,100 NGOs in over 80 countries build online communities.

Ross's last day at the State Department was Monday. He sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable.

"If there were a handful of things I were most proud of, one would be what Secretary Clinton did to make Internet freedom an issue at the grownups' table," Ross said. "Internet freedom was a very obscure topic when Obama came into office. Now it's a big deal, largely because Secretary Clinton made it a big deal."

Ross also looked back proudly on the work his office did to help Syrian rebels restore communications and communicate securely after the revolution started and avoid persecution by the Assad regime. His shop provided communications technologies to opposition members in the Syrian border areas and trained NGOs on how to avoid the regime's censorship and cyber snooping. State also worked during the Libyan uprising to restore communication networks in rebel-held territories such as Benghazi, working with the late Amb. Chris Stevens, to fight the Internet blackout imposed by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Ross often publicly criticized Western corporations that provided surveillance and censorship activities to authoritarian regimes, admittedly with mixed results.

"I'm proud of the work we did... but Russian and Chinese companies are perfectly willing to come in and sell technologies to authoritarian regimes that American and Western companies are not," he said.

Ross always rejected the idea that innovation was about specific tools such as Twitter or Facebook. He would often say "There's no such thing as a Twitter revolution," insisting that social media is simply a vehicle revolutionaries can use to organize and spread their ideas and plans.

"It's really about how do you conduct diplomacy beyond formal interactions between nation states," he told The Cable.

Ross also pushed to bring the State Department into the information age. He trained dozens of U.S. ambassadors in understanding the impact of networks in foreign policy and taught classes for incoming Foreign Service officers at the Foreign Service Institute.

"I lot of people said I was crazy when I said I was going to come here in 2008 because they said it was an innovation-averse environment," he said. "While we still have a long way to go, there's a big difference from 2008 to 2013 in terms of culture."

No replacement for Ross has been chosen and the job might be split into a couple of different positions, one focusing on policy and one more focused on tech product building, he said. As for Ross, he is working on a non-fiction book about the impact of technology and media on foreign policy and is also exploring screenwriting ideas for an as-yet undetermined Hollywood project.

Ross is also starting a company with "partners in Europe," he said, to help business and government leaders understand how the newly networked world affects business and how the advent of cyber conflict is affecting their jobs.

"So many of these dynamics are new. Corporations, investors, and governments are way behind building a policy framework to respond to this," he said. "If I did it for government, it would have to be the right governments ... it would have to be a country that is very friendly to the United States for us to contractually engage with them."

Ross's former office will continue to be housed inside the Office of the Secretary of State. That's different than the model pursued by another young Clinton official, Ronan Farrow, whose Office of Global Youth Initiatives was transferred out of the secretary's office to a permanent home inside a functional bureau when he left the State Department last year.

"Instead of trying to create a new bureau, what we wanted to do was build a long-term institutional capacity. I leave feeling that the work has been fully institutionalized and that the programs will live on," Ross said. "I don't want this to be viewed as another slice of the pie, but rather a part of every diplomat's work. I want 21st-century statecraft to just be ‘statecraft.'"

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The Cable

U.N. officials in Washington to defend Palestinian refugee aid

U.S. aid to the Palestinian refugees could fall victim to the automatic budget cuts that went into effect March 1, so the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) made two trips to Washington this month to argue for consistency in U.S. help for his organization.

Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of UNRWA, came to Washington last week but had to come back this week due to the March 6 snowstorm. On Tuesday he met with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), and staffers from the Senate Appropriations and Senate Foreign Relations Committees. He will also see Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and Middle East Special Envoy David Hale.

On Wednesday he sat down for an interview with The Cable.

Grandi said that U.S. contributions to UNRWA, which are voluntary, are needed more than ever due to the dire situation of Palestinian refugees caught up in the Syria crisis. Right now, the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration require that all accounts be cut evenly, but Congress is expected to provide the State Department flexibility in deciding what to cut. Grandi said he feels confident State won't choose to disproportionately cut money for UNRWA.

"I am encouraged that the will to support UNRWA is there, very clearly. My sense is that if ever there will be any flexibility we will be considered a priority recipient of State Department funds," he said. "All the messages I got back were reassuring, within the context. We are not at the center of the discussion, as you can imagine. We will have to deal with the consequences of whatever is decided on the much bigger scale."

UNRWA is working to get more money from the Gulf states and Asia, but those funds are not forthcoming yet, so the organization is still very dependent on U.S. contributions.

"Any reduction in U.S. funding would be really very serious for UNRWA," Grandi said. "Any cut, selective or across the board, because the U.S. is the biggest bilateral donor, would be irreplaceable."

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) have been working to reduce U.S. contributions to UNRWA. Grandi said he requested meetings with both those offices but they didn't grant him meetings.

The crux of the largely Republican criticism against UNRWA is that the organization's definition of Palestinian refugees includes descendants of the original Palestinian refugees who fled their homes between 1946 and 1948. The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a Kirk amendment last year requiring the State Department to report on how many of the 5 million Palestinian "refugees" were first-generation refugees.

The State Department at the time opposed the Kirk amendment but declared for the first time on the record that it did recognize the refugee status of all 5 million Palestinians who are descendants of the original refugees. An analysis by the academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040 and 20 million by 2060.

The State Department's position conflicts with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status, which allows spouses and children of refugees inside the United States to apply for derivative status as refugees, but specifically declares that grandchildren are ineligible for derivative refugee status.

Grandi said that he believes in the right of return for all refugees, including Palestinian refugees, but that the details of how that right will be implemented are up to the two parties and should be negotiated as part of a final-status agreement.

"It doesn't seem to me the right way to address the protracted nature of the refugee question," he said. "Am I worried about the protracted nature of that problem? I am. Maybe more than those who are raising these objections."

One senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that this year's appropriations process is so haphazard that it's not likely to require a report on Palestinian refugee status, but next year the issue will come up again.

"UNRWA remains one of the least transparent organizations funded by the U.S. taxpayer and in a time of sequestration here at home, it's difficult to explain to Americans why we are financing a culture of welfare terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza," the aide said. 

There is no appropriations process this year, so it's unlikely that the Kirk amendment on defining Palestinian refugees will come up this cycle, but its sure to come up in the fiscal 2014 budget debate, the aide said. Omri Ceren, a senior adviser at the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy organization, told The Cable the congressional angst about UNRWA funding is based on various controversies the organization has found itself involved in over the years related to Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"It may be difficult for UNRWA to sustain its position if there was a sustained debate over its coherence and justness, and that's the direction Congress seems to be heading," he said. "That's before anyone brings up controversies over anti-Semitic textbooks, or Hamas support, or anti-Israel activities, or the bullying of critics -- issues which seem to come up again and again when UNRWA comes in for scrutiny."

Statements by UNRWA officials over the years on these issues have been criticized by members of the pro-Israel community.

The State Department gave $233 million to UNRWA in fiscal 2012, $11 million of which was for Syria-related assistance. So far in fiscal 2013, State has given UNRWA $113 million, with $13 million of that directed toward Syria.