WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fernando Murillo was typical of the young Latin Americans deployed by a U.S. agency to work undercover in Cuba. He had little training in the dangers of clandestine operations -- or how to evade one of the world's most sophisticated counter-intelligence services.
Their assignment was to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism, which they did under the guise of civic programs, including an HIV prevention workshop. Murillo was instructed to check in every 48 hours and was provided with a set of security codes. "I have a headache," for instance, meant the Costa Rican thought the Cubans were watching him and the mission should be suspended.
Over at least two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development -- best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid -- sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba. The danger was apparent to USAID, if not to the young operatives: A USAID contractor, American Alan Gross, had just been hauled away to a Cuban jail for smuggling in sensitive technology. He remains there still.
USAID hired Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company, as part of a civil society program against Cuba's communist government. The same company was central to the creation of a "Cuban Twitter" -- a messaging network revealed in April by The Associated Press, designed to reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
According to internal documents obtained by the AP and interviews in six countries, USAID's young operatives posed as tourists, visited college campuses and used a ruse that could undermine USAID's credibility in critical health work around the world: An HIV-prevention workshop one called the "perfect excuse" to recruit political activists, according to a report by Murillo's group. For all the risks, some travelers were paid as little as $5.41 an hour.
On Monday, the Obama administration defended the program, even while it acknowledged that the HIV workshop served a dual purpose. It "enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID, said in response to the AP's findings: "It may have been good business for USAID's contractor, but it tarnishes USAID's long track record as a leader in global health."
On the other hand, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said USAID's programs were important for human rights in Cuba. "We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis," said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban native and vocal supporter of pro-democracy programs there.
The travelers program was launched during a time when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama spoke about a "new beginning" with Cuba after decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had a coherent policy toward the island nation.
There's no evidence that the program advanced the mission to create a pro-democracy movement against the government of Raul Castro. Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
USAID would not say how much the Costa Rica-based program cost. In response to questions from the AP, the agency issued a statement that said, "USAID and the Obama administration are committed to supporting the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future. USAID works with independent youth groups in Cuba on community service projects, public health, the arts and other opportunities to engage publicly, consistent with democracy programs worldwide."
But the AP investigation revealed an operation that often teetered on disaster. Cuban authorities questioned who was bankrolling the travelers. The young workers came dangerously close to blowing their mission to "identify potential social-change actors." And there was no safety net for the inexperienced travelers, who were doing work that was explicitly illegal in Cuba.
"Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you," the workers' instructions read. "Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them."
After Gross was arrested, USAID privately told contractors that they should consider suspending travel to Cuba, according to emails obtained by the AP.
"We value your safety," one senior USAID official said in an email, less than a week after Gross was seized.
"The guidance applies to ALL travelers to the island, not just American citizens," another official wrote.