WASHINGTON: A Twitter-like Cuban social media network that the U.S. government built to stir unrest was a “cockamamie” idea doomed to discovery and failure, the chairman of a Senate panel that oversees the U.S. Agency for International Development said Tuesday. His voice rising in anger at moments, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the agency did not adequately describe to Congress the program it was secretly operating, adding: “This one from the get-go had no possibility of working.”
Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, said the program – which was uncovered last week by the Associated Press – was part of the administration’s efforts to provide new digital methods to increase the flow of information in and out of Cuba.
Shah said the effort operated “discreetly” and was described in congressional budget justifications. But Leahy interrupted him to say he had read the documents in question.
“If you could figure out it meant this, you’re doing a lot better job than most of us,” Leahy said.
The AP investigation revealed that USAID oversaw the creation of the text message-based service – dubbed “ZunZuneo,” the sound made by a Cuban hummingbird. USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by AP.
Shah said AP’s report had a number of critical inaccuracies, but he was not asked to describe them and did not specify his complaints. He said the agency operated transparently and confirmed that he would discuss the Cuba program in Tuesday’s open congressional hearing.
When Leahy pressed Shah on whether USAID programs always operate in countries with the knowledge and approval of U.S. ambassadors and embassy staff, Shah replied, “That’s the aspiration.”
Last week, Leahy had said that the Cuba social network project was “dumb, dumb, dumb ... since its inception.”
He said USAID employees has been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.
“We’re already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world saying, ‘How could they do this and put us in danger?’” Leahy said.
But other lawmakers voiced their support for the program.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less controlled platform through which to communicate.
“The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies,” Menendez said last week.
Shah said USAID did not set up a Spanish company to help run ZunZuneo. But strategy documents and expense reports obtained by AP show that the project not only planned to establish the Spanish company but also listed an end-of-month expense of $12,500 for the incorporation costs.
USAID has not disputed that contractors set up a shell company in the Cayman Islands called MovilChat that was used to hide the program’s money trail.
A key question is whether the program endangered its users by concealing that the U.S. government was behind it.
The network was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned there after traveling repeatedly on a separate clandestine USAID mission to expand Cuban Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
Early Tuesday, Gross’ lawyer Scott Gilbert released a statement saying that his client was going on a hunger strike. The ZunZuneo story was “one of the factors” Gross took into account in connection with his hunger strike, the attorney said.
“Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba,” Gilbert said. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another.”
Gross is confined to his cell for 23 hours of every day, said Leahy, adding that the U.S. government had failed to take meaningful steps to secure his release.
“As far as I can tell, USAID has all but forgotten about him,” he said.
Shah defended the government’s effort to free Gross. “I think about Alan every day,” he said, adding that responsibility for negotiating the contractor’s release rested with the State Department.
Lawmakers are trying to determine whether the ZunZuneo program should have been classified as “covert” under U.S. national security law, which requires covert action to be authorized by the president and described to congressional intelligence committees.
Shah said the ZunZuneo program was not covert, though “parts of it were done discreetly” to protect the people involved.
He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy promotion projects run by USAID and the State Department, including the Cuban social network project, which found the programs to be consistent with the law.
But the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, told AP this week that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert.
Gootnick said the GAO’s report was focused on investigating the extent to which USAID knew what its contractors were doing. It found that the agency was adequately monitoring the work.
“We did not ask, nor did we report, on the wisdom of conducting such activities,” he said.
Leahy, who oversees the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that authorizes spending for USAID and the State Department, said he was not aware of the Cuban project while it was in operation.
In addition to Leahy’s committee, Shah is expected to appear before a Republican-chaired House Appropriations Subcommittee, as well as the House and Senate foreign relations committees. Last week, the Republican chairman of a House oversight panel said he would be looking into the project.
In a blog posted Monday, USAID reiterated its position that the program was not covert, challenging AP’s story on several fronts. It said references to the use of “smart mobs” in documents obtained by AP “had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo.”
The agency also said that several CEO candidates for the network’s company were told explicitly that the U.S. government was involved. Documents showed that the creators of ZunZuneo wanted to keep the origins of the service secret from CEO candidates.
AP contacted two of the candidates, both of whom said they had interviewed for the job unaware of U.S. involvement.