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White House defends use of social media to stir unrest in Cuba

White House Admits Creating 'Cuban Twitter' To Cause Unrest

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration on Thursday defended its creation of a Twitter-like Cuban communications network to undermine the communist government, declaring the secret program was "invested and debated" by Congress and wasn't a covert operation that required White House approval.

But two senior Democrats on congressional intelligence and judiciary committees said they had known nothing about the effort, which one of them described as "dumb, dumb, dumb." A showdown with that senator's panel is expected next week, and the Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said that it, too, would look into the program.

An Associated Press investigation found that the network was built with secret shell companies and financed through a foreign bank. The 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 was to 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 as well as congressional notification. White House spokesman Jay Carney said he was not aware of individuals in the White House who had known about the program.

The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

USAID's top official, Rajiv Shah, is scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, on the agency's budget. The subcommittee's chairman, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the senator who called the project "dumb, dumb, dumb" during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.

The administration said early Thursday that it had disclosed the initiative to Congress - Carney said the program had been "debated in Congress" - but hours later the narrative had shifted to say that the administration had offered to discuss funding for it with the congressional committees that approve federal programs and budgets.

"We also offered to brief our appropriators and our authorizers," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She added that she was hearing on Capitol Hill that many people support these kinds of democracy promotion programs. And some lawmakers did speak up on that subject. But by late Thursday no members of Congress had acknowledged being aware of the Cuban Twitter program earlier than this week.

Harf described the program as "discreet" but said it was in no way classified or covert. Harf also said the project, dubbed ZunZuneo, did not rise to a level that required the secretary of state to be notified. Neither former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton nor John Kerry, the current occupant of the office, was aware of ZunZuneo, she said.

In his prior position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had asked congressional investigators to examine whether or not U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba were operated according to U.S. laws, among other issues. The resulting report, released by the Government Accountability Office 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 GAO report does not specifically refer to ZunZuneo, but does note that USAID programs included "support for the development of independent social networking platforms."

At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the USAID'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.

Leahy and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said they were unaware of ZunZuneo.

"I know they said we were notified," Leahy told AP. "We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it. I'm going to ask two basic questions: Why weren't we specifically told about this if you're asking us for money? And secondly, whose bright idea was this anyway?"

The Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said his panel will be looking into the project, too.

"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 less-controlled 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."

ZunZuneo was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

The AP obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the ZunZuneo project's development. It independently verified the project's scope and details in the documents through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved.

ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback to the Cold War and a decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.

The social media project began after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers. It was unclear to the AP how the numbers were obtained, although documents indicate they were done so illicitly from a key source inside the country's state-run provider. Project organizers used those numbers to start a subscriber base.

ZunZuneo's organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize "smart mobs" - mass gatherings called at a moment's notice - that could trigger political demonstrations, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, Clinton said the U.S. helps people in "oppressive Internet environments get around filters." Noting Tunisia's role in the Arab Spring, she said people used technology to help "fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change."

Suzanne Hall, then a State Department official working on Clinton's social media efforts, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the ZunZuneo project, documents indicate. Dorsey declined to comment.

The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don't reveal where the funds were actually spent.

ZunZuneo's organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website - and marketing campaign - so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.

"Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise," one written proposal obtained by the AP said. Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo's computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers' messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, "receptiveness" and "political tendencies." USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and "maximize our possibilities to extend our reach."

"It was such a marvelous thing," said Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who never suspected his beloved network had ties to Washington.

"How was I supposed to realize that?" Guerra asked in an interview in Havana. "It's not like there was a sign saying, 'Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.'"

Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands - a well-known British offshore tax haven - to pay the company's bills so the "money trail will not trace back to America," a strategy memo said. Disclosure of that connection would have been a catastrophic blow, they concluded, because it would undermine the service's credibility with subscribers and get it shut down by the Cuban government.

Similarly, subscribers' messages were funneled through two other countries - and never through American-based computer servers.

Denver-based Mobile Accord considered at least a dozen candidates to head the European front company. One candidate, Francoise de Valera, told the AP she was told nothing about Cuba or U.S. involvement.

James Eberhard, Mobile Accord's CEO and a key player in the project's development, declined to comment. Creative Associates referred questions to USAID.

For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew, reaching at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

ZunZuneo vanished abruptly in 2012, and the Communist Party remains in power - no Cuban Spring on the horizon.

"The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared, (it) was like a vacuum," said Guerra, the ZunZuneo user. "In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from."


Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur and AP writers Richard Lardner, Lara Jakes, Donna Cassata and Deb Riechmann in Washington, and AP writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Arce reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Join the discussion

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fishhead80 April 04 2014 at 9:41 AM

Just more lies. That's what Obama will be remembered for.

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1 reply
eiwyaa fishhead80 April 04 2014 at 10:34 AM

I totally agree with you but you need to see the big picture it doesn't matter who is in office, you will be lie to. Our presidents are never in charge and will never be.

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1 reply
eiwyaa eiwyaa April 04 2014 at 10:35 AM

Didn't Bush lie to us too?

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tazteq April 04 2014 at 9:35 AM

" ...secret program was'invested and debated' by Congress and wasn't a covert operation that required White House approval."

This is the very definition of a "covert" operation. Secret program - secret funding - use of foreign banks - US involvement not disclosed - designed to destabilize a foreign nation. Sounds alot like Iran-Contra does it not?

So if oblama did not approve and did not know, I guess it was Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, that approved (without legal authority to do so) the covert operation.

The Hughes-Ryan Amendment REQUIRES a Presidential Finding, a document signed by the President and no other person, to undertake sensitive covert operations.

Cannot wait to see which of the underkings will step up to take the fall for this one, if anyone takes the fall. The Republicans may try to pin this on Clinton (for the future) because the White House claims no one in the White House had knowledge of the program. Keep in mind that the only person under law who can approve covert (and this is one) operations is the President, using a Presidential Finding.

Even the Democrats are concerned about this one because if the White House gets away with not informing at least the "gang of eight" (the intelligence committee majority and minority leaders) then future Presidents will be able to simply redefine that a covert country destabilization operation as not meeting the requirements of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, as well as which operations are NOT sensitive covert operations. Really, country destablization, does not meet the definition of sensitive covert operation?

We have already witnessed this Administration simply redefining and getting away with it thus setting the stage for future Administrations to simply do the same and citing the oblama Administration as precedent for the action allowed by Congress.

Interesting times ahead. This scandal attacks even the Democrat members of Congress and they do not like having their power ignored and striped. The cover-up and defend at all costs liberals have to be spinning in place as yet another scandal strikes this administration.

This one crosses party lines so the defensenicks will have a difficult time. Let the Fifth Amendment claims start flowing today.

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1 reply
Allen Cat tazteq April 04 2014 at 10:36 AM

I can here the bus warming up now for someone to be thrown under.

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ronbobel7 April 04 2014 at 9:13 AM

we jail cubans who were sent here to inflitrated terrorists groups in miama and wonder why the cubans jailed allan gross. the US is ham handed in its relations with latin america. countries in the hemisphere have estblished groups such as mercosur, unasur, celac and alba which excludes the US.

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ANTOINE April 04 2014 at 11:31 AM


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katieh8548 April 04 2014 at 9:15 AM

lie #1 Carnie, Did The White House get it approved, as the law requires, Yes or No?
lie #2 If Hillary wasn't told about it, how did she know about it? As she talked about it in a speech.

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warlocks710420 April 04 2014 at 12:12 PM

another big waste of time and money, the senator was right dumb,dumb,dumb

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paulpleash April 04 2014 at 9:38 AM

Human nature is such that we get away with whatever we can until someday we realize that when the truth finally is evident to all about the 'truth', we have become our own worst enemy. Someday Americans will see who Obama really was. Obama's own worst enemy will be himself. Not the Republicans. It is only a matter of time. Grab a seat! The show is about to begin.

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pH April 04 2014 at 12:43 PM

It's strange that this was undetaken at a time when the government of Cuba was moderating, and that a more friendly association with the US was a definite prospect. I think this set back that normalization process.

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1 reply
slowinski5 pH April 05 2014 at 10:28 AM

what normalization, castro can't prove he's done anything better, than the man he deposed. Yah he got rid of corrupt american racketeers, in exchange for inept european ones. All he had to do was censor his people, deny them the right to assemble, the right to own private property, the right to associate, the right to leave ect.....

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hfdemail April 04 2014 at 9:52 AM

Nothing new...cia has always intervened in the running of foreign governments. Yet, if we
try to protest against our own government, we are treated as criminals...shame on obama...he failed us big time...there's a lot more hidden in our government than most people know. if they did, believe me, there would be a revolution in our country. Our government is NOT what people think it is.

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gwalt0771 April 04 2014 at 9:31 AM

It's no wonder then that Venezuela, Bolivia, and others have kicked USAID out of their countries. As a taxpayer I believed that my tax dollars for USAID were for charitable and cultural assistance - not for spying and promoting dissent. Whether with instruments of war, or supposedly instruments of peace, our government has managed to incite hatred, disdain, and mistrust against the U.S.A. around the world. Will we ever learn to just butt out?

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1 reply
Roberta gwalt0771 April 04 2014 at 9:39 AM

Grow up, educate yourself, All countries do the same. Where were you when GW was killing American children for oil?

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2 replies
verbal007 Roberta April 04 2014 at 9:55 AM

Bhy the way,where is that oil you liberals talked about ........DUHHHHHHHHHHHHh

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sue Roberta April 04 2014 at 10:36 AM

Roberta: Educate yourself because you desperately need some. You are here "trying" to justify their action(s) by saying " ALL countries do it". You are saying that it is OK for you to do something wrong because someone else did something wrong. That kind of logic only seems plausible to a Liberal. Anyone with common sense can see your faulty reasoning. BTW What children did Bush kill for oil??

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