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Was 'Cuban Twitter' program political or not?

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 3:34am  ET

US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 9, 2014, before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on "U.S. Foreign Assistance in fiscal 2015: What Are the Priorities, How Effective?" . (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

JACK GILLUM
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is looking into whether a "Cuban Twitter" program secretly backed by the U.S. government contained messages that were political in nature, despite assertions from the administration that the effort was intended only to increase the flow of information in a country that heavily restricts Internet access.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday it would be "troubling" if political messages were sent under the program. She said the program's sponsor, the U.S. Agency for International Development, was trying to determine whether any of the messages that were sent were in fact political, as well as the timing of the messages, and whether they were drafts or were actually sent.

An Associated Press investigation has revealed that the U.S. government built the now-defunct communications network to undermine the communist government and that draft messages were produced that were overtly political.

Documents obtained by the AP show that the early messages poked fun at the Castro government and were created by a political satirist working for the social media project. Those messages conflict with the U.S. government's earlier assertions that its program didn't promulgate political content.

Cuba's state-run telecommunications firm said Wednesday it had launched an investigation into how hundreds of thousands of customer cellphone numbers ended up in the USAID program. The AP's investigation found that those phone numbers were used to start a subscriber base for the project, ultimately known as ZunZuneo, for the sound made by a Cuban hummingbird.

Congressional hearings into the creation of the program this week focused on whether it was appropriate for USAID to launch such an intelligence-like operation -- and not the CIA or other spy agencies.

The AP investigation showed program evaded Cuba's digital 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 Washington, which went to great lengths to conceal its involvement.

Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., on Wednesday sharply defended U.S.-run democracy programs in Cuba, saying it was "so important to offer the other side of the story, the side that promotes American values: God-given values like freedom, justice or liberty."

She added: "This issue we're debating ... is whether or not USAID should be taking steps to promote human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance throughout the world. I say yes."

Other lawmakers were uncomfortable with the notion that an agency best known for its humanitarian mission was undertaking operations best left to the professionals.

The chairman of the Senate panel that approves spending on such foreign programs, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said a day earlier he was never told about the Twitter-like operation, disputing assertions by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that Congress was properly informed. The Obama administration has said the program operated "discreetly" but wasn't covert.

Leahy, head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations, said USAID employees working openly on aid programs have complained that the agency's secretive programs were putting their lives at risk.

In defending the program, the Obama administration and critics of the Castro government have pointed to federal audits and budgetary checks-and-balances over the roughly $20 million USAID spends overall on Cuban democracy initiatives. The contractors who created ZunZuneo took great care to keep the U.S. government's role hidden from subscribers in Cuba through companies and servers in other nations and financing through a foreign bank.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said at Tuesday's hearing that USAID wasn't the appropriate home for such operations in hostile countries.

"Not to say that that is an important mission, but why would we put that mission in USAID?" Johanns said. "Why wouldn't you look at some other part of the federal government to place that mission? To me, it seems crazy. It just seems crazy that you would be in the middle of that."

Former intelligence officers experienced in covert operations told the AP they could not recall the involvement of USAID in any previous similar intelligence activities. Former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer called the aid agency's secret operation "frankly, nuts."

Baer questioned the agency's reliance on social media to promote democracy, noting that brief flourishes of Internet activism in Iran and Egypt were quickly snuffed out by authoritarian regimes.

"You can't run a revolution by Twitter," he said.

Draft messages produced for the nascent social media network were overtly political, documents obtained by the AP reveal. The Obama administration has said since last week that it did not send out political messages under the project, which it said was instead built to let Cubans speak freely among themselves.

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