Senate Investigates: Was ‘Cuban Twitter’ a Pro-Democracy Campaign?

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Last week, The Associated Press revealed that United States government attempted to create a Twitter-like social media network, called ZunZuneo, with the intention of stoking opposition in the Castro regime in Cuba, inciting social unrest, and undermining the country’s communist government. More than a thousand pages of internal government documents obtained by the publication show that the service — which allegedly operated from 2009 to 2012 and cost $1.6 million — drafted messages that were both overtly political and aimed at satirizing Fidel and Raul Castro. The idea was that the messaging network would reach thousands of Cubans.

Given the United States’ history interfering with Cuban politics and the public’s harsh criticism of the government’s surveillance habits, it is important to note that the program was not run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Rather, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) ran and paid for the social media project. Still, the revelation embroiled the U.S government in controversy to such a degree that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has launched an investigation, as the AP reported.

Senators have asked USAID — the agency that oversees billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid — to turn over all records regarding ZunZuneo, named for the slang term used by Spanish speakers for a hummingbird’s tweet.

Any time the United States takes an interventionist stance on foreign policy, debate ensues. Although it can be – and has been – argued that American interventionist tradition has had its honorable moments — from the Emancipation proclamation to the liberation of Nazi concentration camps to Vietnam War protests — it can also be said that tradition is tainted by racism, elitism, and American exceptionalism. Now before Congress is that same debate. Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told the AP that the review will consider whether the agency’s “pro-democracy” program in Cuba was consistent with those operated in other foreign countries.

Based on what the AP has reported, it seems more could be at issue than consistency. According to the publication’s examination of the agency’s documents, USAID and a team of high-tech contractors utilized a “byzantine system” of offshore accounts and front companies located in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the network from the Cuban government. Even executives were hired without knowledge that they would be working on a project funded by U.S. tax dollars. At its peak, ZunZuneo drew in as many as 68,000 Cubans to share news and opinions, but its subscribers were never aware that the social media network was created by the U.S. government or that American contractors were tracking private data. “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” read a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.” The deep secrecy of the project hints of the Cold War era, when the U.S. and Cuba were locked in a decades-long struggle, but it comes just as the relationship between the two countries has begun to improve.

Whether the “Mission” was legal is another, more precise question facing Senate lawmakers. U.S. law mandates that any covert action undertaken by a federal agency must have presidential approval. Congress must also be notified.

USAID has disputed many of the AP’s allegations, including the use of the Spanish shell company, the potential illegality of the program, and the intention to employ subscriber information for political purposes. “The article suggested that USAID spent years on a ‘covert’ program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to ‘foment’ ‘smart mobs’ and start a ‘Cuban spring’ to overthrow the Cuban government. It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true,” noted an April 7 blog post. “USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert. The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings.”

As Menendez’s comments indicate, the word democracy will play an important role in the program’s defense. The Obama administration has claimed that the program was not a covert action and asserted that it had been disclosed to Congress. “As you know, USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong,” stated White House Press Secretary Jay Carney at an April 3 briefing. “Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society. These appropriations are public, unlike covert action. The money invested has been debated in Congress.” But two senior Democratic lawmakers told the AP they knew nothing of the “Mission,” and the White House later adjusted its story, saying that it had offered to discuss funding for the program with several congressional committees. “We also offered to brief our appropriators and our authorizers,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told the publication.

The government’s argument was that the program served an important purpose: giving the Cuban people a platform through which information could flow freely. Menendez seemed to agree. “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 told the AP last week. Echoing that sentiment, he commented in an April 4 press release that he commends “USAID for its commitment to supporting programs that provide uncensored access to information and communications for for the Cuban people and others struggling around the globe against repression, censorship and the denial of basic human rights.”

In announcing the Senate committee investigation, he noted that it was “dumb, dumb, and even dumber” to suggest that Cubans “don’t deserve the same freedom” as the rest of the world. That statement was seemingly a response to comments made earlier by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont — chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USAID budget. He told the AP that, “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” the humanitarian aid agency.

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