In October 2018, Bryan Singer, was sentenced to 78 months in prison for violating the embargo on Cuba by transferring banned technology. Over the past 60 years, the United States has had an embargo with the nation of Cuba as a penalty or sanction to the Castro-led government. While the embargo has changed a bit over the past sixty years, the basic principles restricting trade with Cuba have remained the same.

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act and Cuba

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act allows for the President to declare sanctions against a country that the United States are in conflict with, such as Iran or North Korea. The specific provision against Cuba, enacted by President Clinton in 1996, is titled “Declaration of a National Emergency and Invocation of Emergency Authority Relating to the Regulation of the Anchorage and Movement of Vessels.”

The declaration was motivated by the shoot down of civilian aircraft by the Cuban Air Force as well as several allegations of espionage against Cuba. The power to enforce was subsequently handed over to DHS for regulation and control. Part of the process to comply with the embargo is that anyone who leaves from US territorial waters and heads to Cuban territorial waters must submit a written application to the Coast Guard to do so. They also must have a license authorizing the particular items to be exported. U.S. Law 50 USC 1705(c) makes it a felony to willfully fail to comply with these requirements. If the items being exported are on the Commerce Control List, they are subject to, in almost all instances, denial.

The Technology That Singer Tried To Export to Cuba

In this case, Singer, attempted to leave the United States bound for Cuba with a group of men, claiming on his requisite form, that he was taking them to a motorcycle rally. However, there was no evidence that Singer disclosed the exporting of NanoStations, a communication device for Wi-Fi that uses high speed technology and encryption technology. The NanoStations are controlled because of the concern that such a product could be used by criminals and foreign governments to communicate secretly without the ability to be intercepted by law enforcement or U.S. intelligence agencies.

DHS Intercepts and Courts Uphold Despite Singer’s Appeal

Upon discovering Singer had the wrong license to export (or filled out the form incorrectly, depending on how one looks at it), DHS did an inspection on Singer’s cargo and found 300 NanoStation devices in a hidden compartment. Subsequently, Singer was convicted under 50 USC 1705(c), as well as attempted smuggling under federal law by the United States District Court in Florida. Singer made some interesting arguments on appeal, including the assertion that it was not proven that he knew (lacked the requisite mental state) the ability of the NanoStation to encrypt communications. The court rejected the argument saying the mental state could be inferred by other evidence, such as Singer’’s hiding of the NanoStation and not disclosing they were on the boat.

Know the Law Before You Travel With Cargo

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act has expanded tremendously since it became law in 1977. To read more about its evolution and role in technological espionage, the Congressional Research Service report is an excellent source. With ever changing technological threats, it is helpful to keep abreast of federal law when traveling outside the U.S. However, for the clearance holder, there may be more than just a perusal of technology if your travel plans include Cuba.

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Joe Jabara, JD, is the Director, of the Hub, For Cyber Education and Awareness, Wichita State University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty at two other universities teaching Intelligence and Cyber Law. Prior to his current job, he served 30 years in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Kansas Air National Guard. His last ten years were spent in command/leadership positions, the bulk of which were at the 184th Intelligence Wing as Vice Commander.