THE BLOG

Is Alan Guilty of Gross Ingratitude?

03/02/2015 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

The classic definition of a person with chutzpah, the Jewish word for shameless audacity, describes a child who murders both parents, then whines for mercy for being an orphan.

Admittedly, Alan Gross doesn't go far enough to fit that definition, and at age 65 is a bit old for it. But Gross, who's been treated like a national hero since President Obama got him released from a Cuban jail after serving only one-third of his 15-year sentence, gets too close to it for comfort, as far as I'm concerned.

Alan Gross, you'll recall, is the U.S. government subcontractor who spent five years in Cuban jails for breaking their laws by smuggling in banned Internet technology and smartphones. He was freed last December. His freedom was part of the president's bargain with the Castro dictatorship to start normalizing relations after more than half a century of futile U.S. efforts to overthrow the Castro government -- including eight attempts to kill Fidel.

Since his release, Gross has done one big thing I find awful. The National Law Journal reported recently that he and his wife appealed to the Supreme Court, demanding more millions of dollars from the same U.S. government that got him out of jail and probably saved his life. The Grosses blame the government for injuries they claim they suffered when he was in jail in Cuba (including her emotional distress). They originally sued the government and the contractor for $60 million while Alan was imprisoned. A Federal District Court threw out their case against the government, and an appeals court upheld that ruling. The high court must now decide whether to further review their case.

In a separate proceeding, Gross has already collected a $3.2 million settlement from the State Department's Agency for International Development, which hired the contracting firm for which he worked. He has also gotten an undisclosed amount of money from another settlement, this one with the contractor. All that was in addition to Gross's pay of more than $500,000.

Gross was jailed in December 2009 for bringing in the banned electronic equipment for use by Cuba's tiny Jewish community. President Obama said he was freed on so-called "humanitarian grounds," as part of the deal that also freed three convicted Cuban spies in American jails and an American spy long-imprisoned in Cuba. Gross was not convicted of espionage, but of acts against Cuba's independence and territorial integrity. The U.S. made the entire deal for normalizing relations with Cuba conditional on his release.

Gross was lucky to get out alive. In prison, he'd refused medical care, gone on hunger strike, threatened suicide, and his wife expressed fears he wouldn't live another year. He lost more than 100 pounds (he went in weighing 254). His family said he could barely walk from hip pain and had lost sight in one eye.

Flown home on a U.S. government plane, Gross was treated like a hero. Secretary of State Kerry gave him a big hug at the airport. He thanked the president in a phone call. Later he and his wife were guests of honor in Michelle Obama's box during the State of the Union Address.

The U.S. government gave Alan Gross back his life, his freedom, millions of dollars, and celebrity treatment. In exchange, he and his wife are suing the government in the Supreme Court to collect even more millions.

The lower courts, whose decision Gross wants reversed, threw out his case on the basis of a law that says the federal government is immune from claims for damages from events that happen in foreign countries. The judges didn't consider Gross's argument that he didn't know it was illegal in Cuba to distribute anything funded by USAID, an agency that, like the rest of the U.S. government, sought regime change.

Gross called himself "a trusting fool," whose government "failed to disclose adequately" to him the "material risks" of his Cuban venture. But if he didn't know he was breaking Cuban law, he should have. Gross

had a long career as an international development worker who had been active in some 50 countries and territories... including Iraq and Afghanistan where he was setting up satellite communications channels to circumvent state-controlled channels.

That an such an experienced operator wouldn't take the trouble to check the legality of his assignment in a country whose government the U.S. was trying to overthrow for half a century is hard to believe, or an abdication of his own responsibility. Furthermore, Gross himself apparently worried that his work was illegal. The Associated Press quotes him as writing, after earlier trips to Cuba: "This is a very risky business in no uncertain terms;" and also that "Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic."

Gross was arrested on the fifth trip to Cuba he made in 2009. He identified himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, not a U.S. government representative. He had with him a mobile phone chip that makes it impossible to track where a call is coming from. U.S. intelligence sources told AP the chip was not available on the open market, and is provided most often to the CIA and Pentagon.

Eric Hershberg, director of American University's Center for American and Latino Studies called the chip "military level" technology and scoffed at the idea that Gross was simply helping Cuban Jews access the Internet. He said Gross carried the chip on behalf of a U.S. government agency committed to promoting regime change. More significant, in a September 2009 report Gross filed before his arrest, he himself described the program as a "pilot" that could be "expanded" to other target groups.

Gross may not have been an American spy. But he was surely a U.S. government agent who got caught on the job breaking Cuban law. Now that he's home, his continued lawsuit against the government that saved his life, paid him millions and made him a celebrity, is nothing less than Gross ingratitude. Some might call it chutzpah.

Update (6/5/2015): Affirming the judgement of both lower courts, the Supreme Court has refused to hear the Gross's case, spelling FINIS to an appalling example of Gross Ingratitude.