WASHINGTON – A State Department official Thursday defended a U.S. agency’s creation of a Twitter-like Cuban communications network to undermine the Communist government, saying the secret program wasn’t a covert operation that required top-level approval.
But two senior Democrats on congressional intelligence and judiciary committees said they had known nothing about the effort, which one of them described as dumb, dumb, dumb.
A showdown with that senator’s panel is expected next week, and the Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said that it, too, would look into the program.
An Associated Press investigation found that the network was built with 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 primitive social media platform.
First, the network was to build a Cuban audience, mostly young people. Then, the plan was to push them toward dissent. Yet its users were neither aware it was created by USAID, a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president as well as congressional notification. White House spokesman Jay Carney said he was not aware of individuals in the White House who had known about the program.
Early Thursday, Carney said the program had been debated in Congress, but hours later, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the administration had merely offered to discuss funding for it with the congressional committees that approve federal programs and budgets.
Harf described the program as discreet but said it was in no way classified or covert. Harf also said the project, dubbed ZunZuneo – slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet – 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.
USAID’s top official, Rajiv Shah, is scheduled to testify on the agency’s budget Tuesday before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. It was the subcommittee’s chairman, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who called the project dumb, dumb, dumb during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.
Leahy and Rep. 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 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 will be looking into the project, too.
That is not what USAID should be doing, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. 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 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.
ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped 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.
ZunZuneo’s organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website – and marketing campaign – so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.
Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise, one written proposal obtained by the AP said.
The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don’t reveal where the funds were actually spent.
Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, receptiveness and political tendencies. USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.
It was such a marvelous thing, said Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who never suspected his beloved network had ties to Washington.
How was I supposed to realize that? Guerra asked. It’s not like there was a sign saying, Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.’
Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands – a well-known British offshore tax haven – to pay the company’s bills so the money trail will not trace back to America, a strategy memo said. Disclosure of that would get it shut down by the Cuban government, they concluded.
For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew, reaching at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal that the team found evidence that 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.
ZunZuneo vanished abruptly in 2012, and the Communist Party remains in power – no Cuban Spring on the horizon.
The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared, (it) was like a vacuum, said Guerra, the ZunZuneo user. In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from.