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Spy agencies analyse role in global drive for democracy

Financial Times

June 16, 2006

In the first meeting of its kind, the cream of the US intelligence community's strategic analysts recently huddled behind closed doors in Washington, with academics and experts from the US and Europe, to talk about building global democracy.

The conference follows an initiative led by John Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence, to get the diverse US intelligence community more deeply involved with US efforts at democracy assistance - analytically and in the field.

Non-government participants said there was no sense of cloak and dagger. They also admitted they would probably never know how Mr Negroponte's project would turn out, in terms of covert activities and strategic advice to the president.

"This is a laudable effort by the analytical intelligence community to learn from open sources," said Larry Diamond, a leader of democracy projects at Stanford University, who chaired the conference.

He had underscored that it would be a big mistake to have covert operations focused on democracy promotion. "That would cast a pall over legitimate democracy activities and strengthen the ability of regimes - like Russia and Iran - opposed to this to demonise and stigmatise democracy efforts."

The conference was hosted by the National Intelligence Council and the State Department's own intelligence wing.

Experts said the discussions took place against a backdrop of two parallel crises that are playing out behind the scenes in Washington's complex world of democracy promotion.

Firstly, neo-conservatives and their critics broadly agree that the administration's freedom agenda - forcefully expressed by President George W. Bush inhis second inaugural address 18 months ago - is indisarray.

In testimony to a Senate committee last week, experts described how a collapse in US credibility worldwide - through prison abuse and torture scandals, secret detentions and the carnage in Iraq - had made it easier for autocrats, both friendly and hostile to the US, to resist and sometimes reverse the democratic tide. Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela and central Asia were singled out.

At the same time, a split has emerged between and within US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in democracy promotion.

The issues revolve around how closely associated they should be with an official US freedom agenda that, through the invasion of Iraq, has become easily confused with "regime change".

Several NGO boards have held fierce internal debates over the "grey area" between democracy promotion and regime change, how to maintain transparency and when "covert" activities are justified.

A drive by Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, to take control of the administration's democracy spending away from quasi-independent intermediaries has added to the discomfort of NGOs that see their own independence jeopardised.

The State Department's Iran-Syria Operations Group was "trying to push money out the door" to back organisations working for democratic change in those countries, said one adviser.

Some NGOs, for example Freedom House, have quietly accepted the funding. Others have refused, saying they want to remain transparent and keep their distance from the US.

"It's dog eats dog in the democracy-building world," said one board member, who asked not to be named.

He said the split was most evident in a rift between the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a grant-making NGO funded by Congress and set up in the cold war, and Freedom House, which is taking a much more aggressive stance in supporting peaceful movements and activities directed at regime change.

Keeping a distance from the US government was "absolutely critical", Carl Gershman, head of NED, told a Senate hearing. "Our credibility is at stake."

But Mark Palmer, vice-chairman of Freedom House said the US government should be a radical democratising agent and close co-operation with US embassies in the field was good.

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