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.