Bloomberg News

Obama Moves to Block Technology Used by Regimes on Rebels

April 23, 2012

President Barack Obama authorized sanctions against individuals and entities that provide information technology that aid regimes in cracking down on dissidents.

The executive order from the president is aimed at thwarting the governments of Syria and Iran in particular for their “malign use of technology” to track, monitor and disrupt anti government protesters.

The targets of the sanctions are those who operated, sold, leased or provided services or technology that those governments use to abuse human rights, according to an executive order that Obama signed yesterday. It was released by the White House this morning as Obama paid tribute to victims of the Holocaust.

“We are haunted by the atrocities we did not stop,” the president said at a Holocaust Days of Remembrance event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Stopping such tragedies is “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States of America.”

Technology should be used to “empower citizens, not to suppress them,” he said.

A unit of the State Department will offer grants to technology companies to find new ways to boost the government’s ability “for early warning, prevention, and response” to prevent mass atrocities. Obama also announced creation of a board that will assess the U.S. capability to prevent such acts.

Surveillance Systems

A Bloomberg News investigation last year exposed Western companies’ sales of surveillance systems to repressive governments, including Iran and Syria.

In Iran, European companies provided or marketed gear to track citizens’ locations and communications that law enforcement or state security agencies would have access to, the investigation showed.

Several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, purchased surveillance technology from a chain of businesses that had been a Siemens AG (SIE) unit, the Bloomberg probe showed. In Bahrain, transcripts from such gear were used in brutal interrogations, Bloomberg reported Aug. 23.

Syria Crackdown

In Syria, an Italian company, Area SpA (YAI), was building a system to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country, Bloomberg reported Nov. 4. Following the disclosure, Area said it was exiting the deal. The system included components from German and French firms, as well as two U.S. companies, California-based NetApp Inc. (NTAP:US) And Hewlett- Packard Co. (HPQ:US) In December, the European Union barred exports of surveillance technology to Syria.

Also last year, Telecomix, a group of online activists, discovered that technology from Sunnyvale, California-based Blue Coat Systems Inc. was filtering websites in Syria. Blue Coat said in a Dec. 15 statement that an internal review showed its technology was transferred illegally to Syria by a third party.

The order was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

Obama directed attention to the uprising in Syria, where clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces persist even as the United Nations backed sending unarmed observers in to monitor a cease fire.

Syrian rebels are fighting to oust President Bashar al- Assad in a conflict that the UN estimates has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year.

“The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we’ve not given up,” Obama said.

Lord’s Resistance Army

Obama, citing another threat, said he’ll continue the mission of U.S. military advisers in Central Africa to help Uganda and neighboring armies track down warlord Joseph Kony and members of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Kony was indicted in 2005 on charges of murder, mutilation, rape and abduction of 30,000 children for use as soldiers and sex slaves. Obama, last October, authorized deployment of 100 combat-equipped soldiers, primarily special operations personnel to the region.

Visiting for the first time as president, Obama toured the museum before speaking with Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor.

Obama also announced he would award the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance who smuggled evidence about the Holocaust to the U.S. and delivered it to President Franklin Roosevelt.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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