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USAID contractor work in Cuba detailed

Piece by piece, in backpacks and carry-on bags, American aid contractor Alan Gross made sure laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment were secreted into Cuba.

The most sensitive item, according to official trip reports, was the last one: a specialized mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track.

The purpose, according to an Associated Press review of Gross’ reports, was to set up uncensored satellite Internet service for Cuba’s small Jewish community.

The operation was funded as democracy promotion for the U.S. Agency for International Development, established in 1961 to provide economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of U.S. foreign policy goals.

Gross, however, identified himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, not a representative of the U.S. government.

Cuban President Raul Castro called him a spy, and Gross was sentenced last March to 15 years in prison for seeking to “undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba. U.S. officials say he did nothing wrong and was just carrying out the normal mission of USAID.

Gross said at his trial in Cuba that he was a “trusting fool” who was duped. But his trip reports indicate that he knew his activities were illegal in Cuba and that he worried about the danger, including possible expulsion.

One report says a community leader “made it abundantly clear that we are all ‘playing with fire.’”

Another time Gross said: “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms.”

And finally: “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.”

The case has heightened frictions in the decades-long political struggle between the United States and its communist neighbor to the south, and raises questions about how far democracy-building programs have gone – and whether cloak-and-dagger work is better left to intelligence operatives