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.

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.