WASHINGTON — Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like network that the U.S. government secretly built in Cuba were overtly political and poked fun at the Castro brothers, documents obtained by The Associated Press show. The messages conflict with claims by the Obama administration that the program had no U.S.-generated political content and was never intended to stir unrest on the island.
Disclosure of the messages, as described in internal documents, came as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress in sometimes- confrontational testimony Tuesday that his agency’s program was “absolutely not” covert and was simply meant to increase the flow of information.
An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba’s Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government.
At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was “cockamamie” and not adequately described to Congress.
USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly maintained it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah whether the project’s goal was to “influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”
“No, that is not correct,” Shah said. “The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other,” he said. “It was not for the purpose you just articulated.”
But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire. One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the Internet was a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.”
“Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. ‘I told you so,’ declares a satisfied Ramiro. ‘Those machines are weapons of the enemy!’” the message read.
Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear if they were ultimately transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.
Said one draft message: “THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead.” Another called Castro the “The coma-andante,” a reference to Fidel’s age.
“No,” wrote organizers, apparently nixing that text. “Too political.”
A USAID spokesman did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment Tuesday.
Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since the AP’s original disclosure. The latest were a second hearing on Tuesday, this one before a House subcommittee. Two Florida lawmakers — Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart — said the Cuba project was successful.
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 to talk to each other.
But Leahy and other lawmakers questioned how thoroughly Congress was informed of the project. They’ve said it’s been described only in broad terms and they were given no indications of the program’s risks, its political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington’s involvement.
Shah told her that Congress has been notified about this program every year since 2008 in documents outlining USAID’s budget. “The fact that we are discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program, illustrates that this is not a covert effort,” he said.
He said “parts of it were done discreetly” to protect the people involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the State Department — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found the programs to be consistent with the law.
But the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, told the 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 examining the extent that USAID knew what its contractors were doing. It found that the agency was adequately monitoring the work, but “we did not ask, nor did we report, on the wisdom of conducting such activities.”
Shah maintained his agency’s position Tuesday that the AP’s report had a number of critical inaccuracies. He said the agency operates transparently and noted that he was discussing the Cuba program in Tuesday’s open congressional hearing.
Shah said USAID did not set up a Spanish company to help run ZunZuneo. But strategy documents and expense reports obtained by the AP show 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.
In a blog posted Monday, USAID said references to the use of “smart mobs” in documents “had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo,” though the two are clearly referenced.
The agency also said several CEO candidates for the network’s company were told explicitly that the U.S. government was involved. Documents show the creators of ZunZuneo wanted to keep the origins of the service secret from CEO candidates. The AP contacted two of the candidates, both of whom said they’d interviewed for the job with no idea of U.S. involvement.
The program’s effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees have 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.
Leahy, whose voice at times grew angry, demanded to know whose idea it was “to undertake this program in this manner.” Shah said ZunZuneo was designed in 2007 and 2008, although it launched publicly in Cuba in 2010 — shortly after Shah was confirmed as USAID’s chief.
The launch came months after American contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba. He was imprisoned 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 released a statement 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,” said the lawyer, Scott Gilbert. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another.”
Orsi reported from Havana. Associated Press Richard Lardner contributed to this report.
Contact the AP’s Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations(at)ap.org. Follow on Twitter: Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler and Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum.