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America Finally Grounds Anti-Castro Propaganda Plane for Good

The United States officially ended one of the most ineffective and widely criticized programs of the last decade aimed at undermining the Cuban government, the State Department revealed Monday.

Foggy Bottom's inspector general released a report showing that AeroMarti, a multimillion-dollar boondoggle that involved flying an airplane around Cuba and beaming American-sponsored content to the island's inhabitants, quietly ended in April. Since launching in 2006, the program was plagued by a simple problem: Every day the plane flew, Havana jammed its broadcast signal, meaning fewer than 1 percent of Cubans could listen to its TV and radio shows.

The federal agency that runs the program, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, repeatedly asked Congress to ground the plane because of its exorbitant expense and dubious effectiveness. But for years, hard-line members of Congress opposed to Fidel Castro rejected the agency's recommendations and renewed funding for the "public diplomacy" effort.

According to the inspector general's report, the troubled program was finally spiked when money for it was quietly left out of fiscal year 2014 appropriations. Unfortunately for taxpayers, AeroMarti's final cost exceeded previous estimates, racking up a $35.6 million tab over its seven-year life.

"AeroMarti has proven to be an ineffective program and an awful waste of U.S. tax dollars," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) stated on Monday. "It would certainly be good news if taxpayers were able to wash their hands of it."

The program initially was backed by prominent anti-Castro lawmakers, such as Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.

However, support for AeroMarti declined as even the BBG acknowledged the inefficacy of the program. "The signal is heavily jammed by the Cuban government, significantly limiting this platform's reach and impact on the island," read the administration's 2014 budget request.

"The BBG board voted for several years in a row to include grounding the plane in its budget," BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil said on Monday. "I don't know how much harder one would have to push. It was in the budget request."

One of the longest holdouts was Ros-Lehtinen, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee whose district includes Miami-Dade County. Ros-Lehtinen consistently declines to comment about her support for AeroMarti, which she did again today.

As sequestration hit departments across the board in fiscal 2014, funding for the plane's fuel and pilots dried up. The plane was grounded in a hangar in Georgia. However, taxpayers paid $6,600 a month to house the twin-engine turboprop until April, when the program was finally killed for good.

For critics, the program's failure calls into question America's decades-long information war against the Castro regime. BBG, the independent federal agency that produces Voice of America and similar programs, continues programming for Radio Marti -- started in 1985 -- and TV Marti, launched in 1990. They broadcast everything from baseball games to local news to weather reports to interviews with anti-Castro dissidents. Collectively, the government has spent well more than $500 million on the "Martis."

The BBG is enthusiastic about other methods of bringing Marti programming to Cuban viewers and listeners: disseminating DVDs, doling out flash drives, broadcasting via satellite, and even a new smartphone application.

"We have evolved to what our market demands," Carlos Garcia-Perez, director of the BBG's Office of Cuba Broadcasting, told Foreign Policy last year. "We're no longer just a TV and radio and internet operation; we're a multimedia operation."

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U.S. Chides Israel for Treatment of Detained Teen

The State Department said Sunday that it was "profoundly troubled" by Israel's treatment of a Palestinian-American who was detained and allegedly beaten by Israeli security personnel, unusually harsh words from the Obama administration that point to a growing divide between the American and Israeli governments.

Tariq Khdeir, a high school sophomore visiting Jerusalem from Tampa, Florida, was arrested Thursday and held for three nights in Israeli custody before being released Sunday under house arrest after his family posted bail.

A video posted online appears to show Israeli police officers hitting and kicking him before the arrest. In addition to the video, there are photos of Khdeir's face, disfigured with a black eye and swollen lip. It sparked outrage among Palestinians, who are already up in arms over the killing of Khdeir's 16-year-old cousin, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, whose body was found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest on Wednesday.

"We are profoundly troubled by reports that [Tariq Khdeir] was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Israeli police said that Khdeir and those arrested with him resisted arrest and attacked the officers, but Khdeir's family says he did not participate in any violence.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir's murder is believed to be revenge for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking in the West Bank in early June. One of the teenagers, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, had dual Israeli and American citizenship. The Israeli teens' bodies were found June 30 near the city of Hebron.

President Barack Obama called the murders a "senseless act of terror against innocent youth" that caused "indescribable pain" to their parents. The White House issued a similarly sharp condemnation after Muhammad Abu Khdeir's murder, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice calling it a "heinous murder" on Twitter. Rice also tweeted that the United States is "paying close attention to [the] investigation" into the teen's death, which surprised some observers in the Israeli media by implying that the administration had at least some doubts about the integrity of the Israeli probe.

Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a similar call Sunday as she pressed for a broad probe into Tariq Khdeir's detention and apparent beating.

"As we stated yesterday we are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for the apparent excessive use of force," Psaki said.

Sunday's comments were the latest in a series of rhetorical volleys between Jerusalem and Washington. In January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was "acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor." Psaki responded at the time that Yaalon's comment was "offensive and inappropriate." Yaalon later issued an apology.

As outrage over the new killings spreads on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, Israeli police announced Sunday that they arrested a group of suspects in Muhammad Abu Khdeir's abduction and murder. The New York Times reported that several of them are minors.

The police are trying to determine whether the same suspects may also be responsible for the unsuccessful kidnapping of 8-year-old Mousa Zaloum, which occurred a day before Khdeir was abducted in the same Jerusalem neighborhood.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the suspects in Khdeir's killing "terrorists" and said they would "face the full weight of the law," but used their arrest to call on Palestinian leaders to track down the killers of the Israeli teenagers.

Speaking in front of the house of one of the Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu said: "The murderers came from the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority; they returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to do everything in its power to find them, just as we did, just as our security forces located the suspects in the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir within a matter of days."

Meanwhile, Israel has carried out airstrikes in Gaza in response to alleged rocket attacks coming from the Hamas-controlled territory. Hamas said Sunday that the Israeli airstrikes killed seven of its members.

Combined, these events have thrown Israel into a new cycle of violence that threatens to further unravel any chance of restarting the peace talks that collapsed in April.

"The focus of diplomacy now needs to be crisis management and a prevention of a further deterioration of conditions of the ground," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.* "There is no real prospect of bringing the parties back to the negotiating table for the foreseeable future."

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado last week, Martin Indyk, the former top U.S. envoy to the Middle East, said the peace talks fell apart in April because of the bitter relationship between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And he defended Kerry's efforts: "We gave it everything we had, and we got nowhere."

* Correction, July 7, 2014: Robert Danin is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. An earlier version of this story incorrectly called the organization the Center on Foreign Relations. (Return to reading.)

Photo by AFP/Ahmad Gharabli