WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of the U.S. government agency that secretly created a "Cuban Twitter" communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba is expected to testify next week before a senator who thinks the whole idea was "dumb, dumb, dumb." The congressional hearing could resolve key questions around the clandestine program, including whether the Obama administration adequately informed lawmakers about its plans.
Administration officials on Thursday defended the program, saying it had been "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.
An Associated Press investigation found that the network was built using 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 social media platform.
The program aimed first to build a Cuban audience, mostly young people. Then the plan was to push them toward dissent.
But the Cuban users of the network, called ZunZuneo, were not aware it was created by the U.S. Agency for International Development, overseen by the State Department. They also did not know that American contractors running the program were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
U.S. law requires written authorization of covert action by the president. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday he was not aware of individuals in the White House who had known about the program.
Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, said late Thursday that the ZunZuneo program "shows once again that the United States government has not renounced its plans of subversion against Cuba, which have as their aim the creation of situations of destabilization in our country to create changes in the public order and toward which it continues to devote multimillion-dollar budgets each year."
"The government of the United States must respect international law and the goals and principles of the United Nations charter and, therefore, cease its illegal and clandestine actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and international public opinion," the statement said.
USAID's top official, Rajiv Shah, was scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations State Department and foreign operations subcommittee on the agency's budget. The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the project "dumb, dumb, dumb" in an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.
The administration on Thursday initially said it had disclosed the program to lawmakers -- Carney said it had been "debated in Congress" -- but hours later shifted its stance to say 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," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Harf described the program as "discreet" but said it was in no way classified or covert. Harf also said 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 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 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."
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 the 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 would also be looking into the project.
"That is not what USAID should be doing," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee, said. "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."