Did USAID Wander Into CIA Territory by Running Cuba Op?

Menendez defended USAID, saying the actions of the agency were not “in any way a cockamamie idea.”

“I think it is dumb, dumb and even dumber to go ahead and suggest that there can be freedom, and we should seek freedom of Internet access and freedom of expression globally but that somehow the people of Cuba don't deserve the same freedom,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also defended the program at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

The congresswoman said these types of programs “are so important to offer the other side of the story, the side that promotes American values: God-given values like freedom, justice or liberty.”

“This issue we’re debating…is whether or not USAID should be taking steps to promote human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance throughout the world. I say yes,” she added.

Several lawmakers questioned whether USAID should be running such operations, instead of the CIA or other intelligence agencies.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) raised concerns that the program could jeopardize the work of USAID around the world.

“What are we doing to our USAID programs around the world when they hear there are covert or discreet programs like this going on by USAID?” Flake said.

A Cuban satirical artist living in Chile told the AP he was hired to write political messages for ZunZuneo, and denied any knowledge that the U.S. government was behind the network.

Before Menendez asked Shah to provide his committee with all records about the program, Flake had requested all the tweets and messages that were sent by USAID and its contractors.

Shah told Flake the agency does not have most of them but promised to turn over any data that it can obtain from contractors.

USAID has repeatedly denied that the program was a clandestine effort. The White House has said the program operated “discreetly” but was not a covert operation.

The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) released a report on Monday that detailed the terms of a contract between USAID and Washington-based contractor Creative Associates International (CAI), which worked on the ZunZuneo program. The contract references the possibility of “classified” work and outlines the security clearance arrangements required by the U.S. government.