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Senior Obama administration officials worry that the Syrian government may seek to exact revenge on members of an opposition group that has received millions of dollars in covert American funding, Fox News has learned.
The Movement for Justice and Development, founded by Syrian exiles and based in London, has received an estimated $6 million in U.S. funding since 2006, according to documents obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and first reported by The Washington Post. The group operates Barada TV, a London-based satellite channel that broadcasts anti-government programming into Syria, as well as other programs aimed at destabilizing the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"We are extremely concerned that lives are endangered as a result of this article based on WikiLeaks," a senior Obama administration official told Fox News Monday morning. "The concern regards what (the) Syrians might do to those that work for (Barada), given that (Assad and his security forces) are prone to crack down and could well use this as an excuse -- blaming it on foreigners."
Syrian security forces are estimated to have killed at least 200 people since anti-government protests erupted in the country one month ago, part of a wave of demonstrations buffeting regimes across the Mideast. President Assad promised on Saturday to lift an emergency decree that has been in place since 1963, a key demand of the demonstrators.
As a critical component in its engagement of adversarial regimes in the Mideast, the Obama administration has made a number of overtures to Assad, including, most recently, the returning of an ambassador to Damascus after a six-year absence.
Asked about Assad's initial crackdown on the protests, Secretary Clinton told CBS News on March 27: "There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer."
Two days later, traveling in London, Clinton specified that her remarks about Assad as a reformer "referenced opinions of others" and that she was not "speaking either for myself or for the administration" in that instance.
A second senior administration official defended the funneling of taxpayer money to the Movement for Justice and Development.
"U.S. democracy and governance programming for Syria is no different than programs the United States and many other democratic countries support in countries around the world," said this official. "What is different is that the Syrian government perceives the development of civil society as a threat to its control over the Syrian people."
An April 2009 cable from a State Department officer at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, disseminated by WikiLeaks, stated that the Assad regime "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change."
Embassy Chargé D'affaires Maura Connelly warned officials in Washington that "some programs may be perceived, were they to be made public, as an attempt to undermine the Assad regime."
Accordingly, Connelly recommended that the Obama administration "aim less at fostering 'regime change' and more toward encouraging 'behavior reform'" on the part of the Assad government. She also asserted that the activities of "the various expatriate reform organizations operating in Europe and the U.S.," a category that includes the Movement for Justice and Development, "have little to no effect on civil society or human rights in Syria."
The Syrian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.