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April 4, 2014

White House defends ‘Cuban Twitter’

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday defended its creation of a Twitter-like Cuban communications network to undermine the communist government, declaring the secret program was “invested and 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, 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 a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

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.

The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

USAID’s top official, Rajiv Shah, is scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, on the agency’s budget. The subcommittee’s chairman, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the senator who called the project “dumb, dumb, dumb” during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.

The administration said early Thursday that it had disclosed the initiative to Congress — Carney said the program had been “debated in Congress” — but hours later the narrative had shifted to say that 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,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She added that she was hearing on Capitol Hill that many people support these kinds of democracy promotion programs. And some lawmakers did speak up on that subject. But by late Thursday no members of Congress had acknowledged being aware of the Cuban Twitter program earlier than this week.

Harf described the program as “discreet” but said it was in no way classified or covert. Harf also said the project, dubbed 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 or not 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 or not 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.”

At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the USAID’s longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and the details could undermine the agency’s mission to deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.

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 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, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee. “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 their support for ZunZuneo, which is slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.

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