The Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Thursday 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.
The request included copies of messages the U.S. government or its contractors transmitted to subscribers in Cuba, who never were told about Washington’s role in the primitive, text message-based cellphone service that was meant to undermine Cuba’s communist government. The service was the subject of an Associated Press investigation published last week.
“I’d like to get a full sense of all your democracy programs, beyond the Internet, as well, because we’re going to judge all of those in context,” committee chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told USAID administrator Rajiv Shah during a hearing. Menendez, who said he supported the Cuban Twitter network known as ZunZuneo, said he might ask for separate reviews by other auditing agencies.
Menendez made the request without a committee vote and said the review would consider whether USAID’s pro-democracy programs in Cuba were consistent with those run in other foreign countries, and whether USAID should operate what it has since acknowledged was a “discreet” program.
The AP investigation revealed that the U.S. government took great care to keep its role hidden in the now-defunct ZunZuneo, which was publicly launched in 2010, using foreign bank transactions and computer networks. The AP also revealed that draft messages produced were overtly political, despite earlier U.S. government statements that the service had a more neutral purpose.
In four congressional hearings over three consecutive days, lawmakers have debated whether USAID, best known for its humanitarian mission, should be running such a cloak-and-dagger mission instead of government spy agencies like the CIA. Based on internal documents and interviews, AP reported that Cuban subscribers were neither aware it was created by the U.S. government nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., strongly defended ZunZuneo as a platform Cubans could use to communicate with each other amid government-imposed Internet restrictions. Rubio said he wants to restart the operation, which ended in 2012.
Rubio asked the USAID administrator: “This wasn’t an intelligence program. We weren’t spying on the Cuban government, were we?”
Shah replied, “No.”
Menendez on Thursday said USAID’s Cuban program was not “in any way a cockamamie idea.” His comments took direct aim at Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who earlier this week criticized the USAID program in similar terms — marking a rare departure from the Senate’s tradition of staid decorum among lawmakers.
“It is dumb, dumb and even dumber to go ahead and suggest that there can be freedom, and we should seek Internet freedom globally, but somehow the people of Cuba don’t deserve the same freedom,” Menendez said. Leahy last week called the secretive program “dumb, dumb, dumb.”