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US contractors profiled 'Cuban Twitter' responses

Thursday - 5/1/2014, 1:04am  ET

FILE - In this April 8, 2014 file photo, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Shah told a U.S. Senate panel that the program shrouded in secrecy to build a “Cuban Twitter” on the Communist-governed island was not intended to influence Cuban politics. But that doesn’t square with previously unpublished documents showing a worker was hired to categorize Cuban cellphone users as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “anti-revolutionary.” (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

DESMOND BUTLER
Associated Press

Paula Cambronero was studying public relations at a Costa Rican college when she landed her first real job working for a U.S. government contractor. But it wasn't to write press releases.

As part of a program shrouded in secrecy to build a "Cuban Twitter" on the Communist-governed island, Cambronero profiled Cuban cellphone users, categorizing them as "pro-revolution," ''apolitical" or "anti-revolutionary."

The social media network, paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development, sought to undermine the Cuban government through cellphone text messaging to get around the island's Internet restrictions, The Associated Press detailed in an investigation published in early April.

The plan for the bare-bones service, known as ZunZuneo, was to build a subscriber base slowly through innocuous news messages, then when it reached a critical mass of users, introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize "smart mobs" to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to documents obtained by the AP.

Following the AP's report, USAID chief Rajiv Shah told a U.S. Senate panel that the program was not intended to influence Cuban politics. But that doesn't square with Cambronero's work, first as an intern then as a contracted employee, as detailed in the documents.

Cambronero's job was to test the political waters before the program was launched. The contractor asked her to sign a security protocol that required encrypted communications with other staff and emails sent from a domain name "not publicly linked" to the contractor. It cautioned that she would handle a "considerable amount of sensitive information that must be safeguarded to protect critical operations of the Project."

USAID and its contractors went to great lengths to hide the U.S. government's role in ZunZuneo, including establishing a front company in the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail.

Cambronero, who studied at the University of Costa Rica, said enthusiastically in a report on her work that it was "my first job experience with an established schedule."

Nevertheless, she had considerable responsibility, building out a database about Cuban mobile phone users, including gender, age, "receptiveness" and "political tendencies" that USAID believed could help bolster its Cuba programs. The Cubans responding to the text messages were not aware the U.S. government was gathering data on them.

Cambronero did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department had no comment Wednesday.

The political content of the social networking program is sensitive because the Obama administration has denied it involved covert action. The U.S. National Security Act defines "covert" as government activities aimed at influencing political conditions abroad "where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." The law requires the president to approve covert activities.

Costa Rica's government has asked Washington to explain why it ran such a program from Costa Rican territory. Carlos Roverssi, the minister of communications, said Wednesday that it will be up to the country's recently elected government to deal with the matter once the U.S. responds.

"It seems to me that the issue is now public and the next government should follow up on the issue, without a doubt," he said.

The State Department has said it would be "troubling" if political messages were sent under the program, and ordered a review.

On Tuesday, USAID spokesman Matthew Herrick told the AP that the agency had completed its review and forwarded to congressional oversight committees a catalog of the messages sent to Cubans.

He said that the 249 messages related to technology, sports, world news and trivia and that they "were consistent with the objective of creating a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves."

Contractors hired a Cuban-born satirist to craft overtly political messages that took aim at Cuba's leaders and some of them were sent to Cuban mobile subscribers. Responses to those texts were reviewed by Cambronero.

Herrick said those messages were sent out "under a grant that pre-dated the ZunZuneo project."

However, multiple documents reviewed by the AP show USAID characterized the grant that funded the political messages as the first stage of the same project, describing it as the "test phase" of the network that became ZunZuneo.

Under the program, contractors sent the texts from Spanish telephone numbers to thousands of Cuban cellphones as part of a test to see if a text-message based social network was viable. Some of the messages included questions and Cubans were asked to respond.

Cambronero collected a sample of more than 700 responses and analyzed them according to two variables. The first was the level of interest in the messages received, and the second was the political nature of the response.

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