WASHINGTON – The Obama administration Thursday defended its creation of a Twitter-like Cuban communications network to undermine the communist government, declaring that 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 foreign banks. 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 U.S. Agency for International Development’s top official, Rajiv Shah, is to testify about the agency’s budget Tuesday before the Senate subcommittee on appropriations for the State Department and foreign operations. The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., is the lawmaker who called the project “dumb, dumb, dumb” in a Thursday appearance 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,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, adding 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 Twitter program for Cuba earlier than this week.
Harf 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 F. Kerry, the current occupant of the office, was aware of ZunZuneo, she said.
ZunZuneo was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan P. 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.