Friday, July 18, 2014
WASHINGTON (AP) — The inspector general for the nation's international aid agency is probing a once-secret Obama administration program that created a social media network in Cuba, The Associated Press has learned.
The review centers on the U.S. Agency for International Development's Twitter-like service in Cuba, which was meant to circumvent Internet restrictions on the island and undermine the government. USAID has been criticized for using the program to conduct overt political messaging and for not fully informing Congress about the scope of its work there.
The inquiry follows an AP investigation in April that revealed the existence of the "Cuban Twitter," known as ZunZuneo. That report found USAID contractors deployed the primitive text-messaging service by hiding sources of taxpayer money and not telling subscribers it was backed by the U.S. government or that it gathered private user data for political purposes.
USAID's inspector general confirmed Thursday it was focusing on the Cuban Twitter program and that it's examining in part whether appropriate management controls — including proper oversight of ZunZuneo — were in place. It said it plans to publish its findings when the review is complete. Inspectors general act as auditors within federal agencies.
The Obama administration has said ZunZuneo was not covert but "discreet," and that it served an important, non-political purpose by helping information flow more freely to Cubans. But the AP found instances in which organizers drafted or sent politically charged messages, which the State Department said would be "troubling" if confirmed.
In April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked USAID to turn over all records about the Obama administration's secret Cuban twitter program as part of a broader review of the agency's civil-society efforts worldwide.
Separately, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations, also asked for details about the program. His office said Thursday that USAID has not turned over the information yet, a delay the Vermont Democrat called "unacceptable."
Those requests followed a series of congressional hearings during which lawmakers debated whether USAID — best known for its humanitarian efforts — should be running such a cloak-and-dagger mission instead of spy agencies like the CIA. It's unclear whether the IG investigation will focus on whether or not USAID may have violated federal law or if it conducted a covert operation.
ZunZuneo's organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. They hoped the network would reach critical mass so that 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." At its peak, ZunZuneo drew in more than 68,000 Cubans, according to USAID, before it mysteriously disappeared in 2012.
USAID said it has handed over all politically oriented messages from ZunZuneo to congressional investigators.
The agency publicly launched ZunZuneo shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He remains imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
USAID administrator Rajiv Shah has said publicly that the program comported with U.S. law and congressional oversight.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org.
Follow on Twitter: Gillum at https://twitter.com/jackgillum, Butler at https://twitter.com/desmondbutler.