Did USAID Wander Into CIA Territory by Running Cuba Op?

WASHINGTON – Members of Congress have ordered an investigation into the U.S. government’s secret Cuban Twitter-style program as part of a broader review of the nation’s civil-society efforts worldwide.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) ordered a comprehensive review of all United States Agency for International Development’s democracy programs before lawmakers left for spring break. He asked USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah to provide his committee with information about all of the democracy programs to measure how the U.S. tries to influence dialogue in countries with limits on free speech.

The probe comes after the Associated Press recently reported that USAID, which funds humanitarian and development projects, created a text messaging service called ZunZuneo – slang for a hummingbird’s tweet – intended to give Cubans an online platform for political dissent.

According to the AP, the network’s aim was to build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; and then hope it would reach a critical mass so that dissidents could organize mass gatherings which in turn could trigger political demonstrations around the country.

The network was launched after the 2009 arrest of American contractor Alan Gross by Cuba. He was seized after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, covert USAID mission to expand Internet access and the flow of information in Cuba.

The U.S. went to extensive lengths to conceal the operation by using computer networks, front companies, and bank accounts overseas.

USAID hired companies in Spain and Costa Rica to create a Twitter-type app that was sent via blast to Cuban cell phone users that allowed them to communicate with one another free of charge.

The project, which lasted two years, sought to circumvent the Cuban government’s restrictions on the Internet with an unsophisticated social media platform.

Although created and funded by the U.S. government, Cubans using the app would have had no way of knowing that the service was paid for by the U.S.

ZunZuneo disappeared abruptly in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

“We are either going to judge whether or not we are going to be supportive of Internet access in the world or not. I think it’s consistently unfair that one set of democracy programs has the greatest scrutiny of the federal government to the absence of others,” Menendez told Shah. “I would ask you to give me information about all of those programs and all of the programming of those programs and all of the tweets and all of the emails and everything so we can make an informed judgment here.”

The Thursday hearing was the fourth in a series of meetings last week featuring testimony by Shah.

Two days earlier, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), head of the Senate subcommittee that oversees USAID’s budget, disputed Shah’s assertion that Congress was informed about the program.

Leahy asked Shah whether the project’s goal was to influence political conditions in Cuba by “gathering information about Cuban cell phone users,” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”

“No, that is not correct,” Shah said. “The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other. It was not for the purpose you just articulated.”

Leahy called the program “a cockamamie idea” that had “no possibility of working.” He said USAID employees have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such covert programs put them at risk because they generate the perception that the agency is engaging in intelligence-like activities.