WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will issue an executive order Monday that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, from cellphone tracking to Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.
Social media and cellphone technology have been widely credited with helping democracy advocates organize against autocratic governments and better expose rights violations, most notably over the past year and a half in the Middle East and North Africa.
But authoritarian governments, particularly in Syria and Iran, have shown that their security services can also harness technology to help crack down on dissent — by conducting surveillance, blocking access to the Internet or tracking the movements of opposition figures.
Obama’s executive order, which he will announce during a Monday speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is an acknowledgment of those dangers and of the need to adapt American national security policy to a world being remade rapidly by technology, according to senior administration officials familiar with the plans. Although the order is designed to target companies and individuals assisting the governments of Iran and Syria, they said, future executive orders could name others aiding other countries through technology in crackdowns on dissent.
Obama’s speech at the most visible U.S. symbol of Holocaust remembrance comes at a time when his policy toward Syria, where a government crackdown has killed thousands of civilians, is under sharp criticism from his Republican rivals for the presidency.
To demonstrate the priority he places on genocide prevention, Obama will use the roughly 20-minute address to reveal that he has asked for the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate — the consensus view of all U.S. intelligence agencies — appraising the potential for mass killings in countries around the world and their implication for U.S. interests.
The president will also announce a set of U.S. development “challenge” grants designed to encourage technology companies to develop new ways to help citizens in countries vulnerable to mass killings better detect and quickly alert others to impending dangers. And he will unveil a new high-level government panel to serve as a clearinghouse for real-time intelligence, policymaking and other issues related to mass killing.
“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.
Last year, Obama cited an imminent threat to Libyan civilians to explain his decision to intervene militarily against Libya’s longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” he said at the time.
In October, Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops to Uganda and its neighbors to help the region’s governments hunt down Joseph Kony, the fanatical head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for its campaign of civilian slaughter and child kidnapping.
But Republicans and some human rights advocates have derided Obama’s policy in Syria as weak and pressed him to do more to stop the killings there.
Last week, echoing Obama’s own remarks on Libya delivered a year earlier, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that “for the United States to sit by and watch this wanton massacre is a betrayal of everything that we stand for and believe in.”
Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and imposed a set of economic sanctions against his government. But Assad has ignored international pressure and kept up a brutal crackdown that human rights groups now estimate has killed more than 11,000 people.
In some cases, Syrian security forces are using technology to track down the opposition movement’s leaders. Syrian officials may also have tracked satellite phones and computer addresses to locate a group of foreign journalists in February who were covering the siege of the city of Homs.
Two journalists were killed in an attack on a building where they were seeking shelter from government bombardment, among them Marie Colvin, an American working for the Sunday Times of London.
In his new executive order, which was summarized in advance for The Washington Post, Obama states that “the same GPS, satellite communications, mobile phone, and Internet technology employed by democracy activists across the Middle East and North Africa is being used against them by the regimes in Syria and Iran.”
Under the order, the administration will announce Monday new sanctions, including a U.S. visa ban and financial restrictions, on two Syrian “entities,” one Syrian individual and four Iranian “entities.” Administration officials, who did not identify the targets of the sanctions by name, said “entities” in this case describes both government agencies and private companies in Iran and Syria.
The new steps are designed primarily to target companies explicitly aiding authoritarian governments with new technology that assists in civilian repression.
But senior administration officials say the measures should prompt all companies to think harder about how the technology they are providing to other countries might be employed and to take steps to ensure that it is not used in harmful ways.
Obama’s visit to the memorial will follow by a few days the official Holocaust Remembrance Day, and senior administration officials said he will use the first part of his speech to discuss the mass killing of Jews in Europe.
He visited Buchenwald in June 2009, touring the former Nazi concentration camp on a still afternoon with Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Wiesel will also accompany him Monday at the museum.
Administration officials say Obama will use the second part of his remarks to discuss the legacy of Rwanda and his own efforts in Libya, Sudan and central Africa, Ivory Coast and other places where mass killings or the threat of them have drawn U.S. attention.
The new Atrocities Prevention Board is intended to elevate the issue further in his administration, officials say. It will comprise senior representatives from across the administration with the goal of helping “the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats, and oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective.”
Power said the board will hold its first session Monday afternoon and plans to meet with as many as 200 representatives of the nongovernmental organizations, university chapters of anti-genocide groups and others involved in the issue.
“This doesn’t make atrocities go away,” said Power, who has written extensively on the U.S. response to genocide through history. “But it does give us a new set of tools and should prevent presidents from ever saying again that they didn’t have options to confront mass killings.”