WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a "Cuban Twitter" -- a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.
The Obama administration 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 would 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 and congressional notification. Officials at the USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said Thursday that it was not a covert program, though "parts of it were done discreetly" in order to protect the people involved. Shah said on MSNBC that a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the project to be consistent with the law.
"This is simply not a covert effort in any regard," he said.
Congressional investigators were asked by John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now secretary of state, to examine whether or not U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba were operated according to U.S. laws, among other issues. The report released by GAO 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 report does not refer to the project, dubbed ZunZuneo, but does note that USAID programs included "support for the development of independent social networking platforms."
White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed Shah's statement and said he was not aware of individuals in the White House who were aware of the program. Carney also said President Barack Obama does support efforts to expand communications in Cuba.
At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development'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.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, called the program "dumb, dumb, dumb" on Thursday and said he was not aware of the effort.
"And if I had been, I would have said, 'What in heaven's name are you thinking?'" Leahy said on MSNBC. "If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID."
The Republican chairman of a House oversight panel said it would be looking into the project.
"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. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a platform to talk to each other.
"The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies," Menendez said.
USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.
"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project's creators. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."