America's secret 'Cuban Twitter' faces scrutiny
Students gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
WASHINGTON -- The head of the U.S. government agency that secretly created a "Cuban Twitter" communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba is expected to testify next week before a senator who thinks the whole idea was "dumb, dumb, dumb." The congressional hearing could resolve key questions around the clandestine program, including whether the Obama administration adequately informed lawmakers about its plans.
Administration officials on Thursday defended the program, saying it had been "debated" by Congress and wasn't a covert operation that required White House approval. But two senior Democrats on congressional intelligence and judiciary committees said they had known nothing about the effort.
An Associated Press investigation found that the network was built using secret shell companies and financed through a foreign bank. The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba's stranglehold on the Internet with a social media platform.
The program aimed first to build a Cuban audience, mostly young people. Then the plan was to push them toward dissent.
But the Cuban users of the network, called ZunZuneo, were not aware it was created by the U.S. Agency for International Development, overseen by the State Department. They also did not know that American contractors running the program were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
U.S. law requires written authorization of covert action by the president. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday he was not aware of individuals in the White House who had known about the program.
Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, said late Thursday that the ZunZuneo program "shows once again that the United States government has not renounced its plans of subversion against Cuba, which have as their aim the creation of situations of destabilization in our country to create changes in the public order and toward which it continues to devote multimillion-dollar budgets each year."
"The government of the United States must respect international law and the goals and principles of the United Nations charter and, therefore, cease its illegal and clandestine actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and international public opinion," the statement said.
USAID's top official, Rajiv Shah, was scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations State Department and foreign operations subcommittee on the agency's budget. The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the project "dumb, dumb, dumb" in an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.
The administration on Thursday initially said it had disclosed the program to lawmakers -- Carney said it had been "debated in Congress" -- but hours later shifted its stance to say the administration had offered to discuss funding for it with the congressional committees that approve federal programs and budgets.
"We also offered to brief our appropriators and our authorizers," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Harf described the program as "discreet" but said it was in no way classified or covert. Harf also said ZunZuneo did not rise to a level that required the secretary of state to be notified. Neither former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton nor John Kerry, the current occupant of the office, was aware of ZunZuneo, she said.
In his prior position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had asked congressional investigators to examine whether U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba were operated according to U.S. laws, among other issues. The resulting report, released by the Government Accountability Office in January 2013, does not examine whether the programs were covert. It does not say that any U.S. laws were broken.
The GAO report does not specifically refer to ZunZuneo but does note that USAID programs included "support for the development of independent social networking platforms."
Leahy and Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said they were unaware of ZunZuneo.
"I know they said we were notified," Leahy told the AP. "We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it. I'm going to ask two basic questions: Why weren't we specifically told about this if you're asking us for money? And secondly, whose bright idea was this anyway?"
The Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said his panel would also be looking into the project.
"That is not what USAID should be doing," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee, said. "USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished."
But several other lawmakers voiced support for ZunZuneo, which is slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk to each other.
"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.
Some Cuban-Americans also applauded the effort.
"I don't think it was a bad thing if it was opening up people's minds. ... At least this way they were helping people communicate," said Miami construction worker Ivan Marrero, 48, who fled Cuba in 2005 by boat.
Others said they worried it would hurt the island's small movement of independent journalists and bloggers.
"The Cuban government will do everything possible to discredit (blogger) Yoani (Sanchez) and other opposition leaders inside Cuba, using this kind of information," Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and senior policy adviser with the law firm Poblete Tamargo, said.
USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.
ZunZuneo was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after travelling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
ZunZuneo's organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so dissidents could organize "smart mobs" -- mass gatherings called at a moment's notice -- that could trigger political demonstrations, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system.
USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur, AP writers Richard Lardner, Donna Cassata and Deb Riechmann in Washington, and Christine Armario, Laura Wides and Suzette Laboy in Florida contributed to this report.