WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday to turn over all records about the Obama administration's secret Cuban twitter program as part of a broader review of the agency's civil-society efforts worldwide.
The request included copies of messages the U.S. government or its contractors transmitted to subscribers in Cuba, who never were told about Washington's role in the primitive, text message-based cellphone service that was meant to undermine Cuba's communist government and was the subject of an Associated Press investigation last week.
"I'd like to get a full sense of all your democracy programs, beyond the Internet, as well, because we're going to judge all of those in context," committee chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told USAID administrator Rajiv Shah during a hearing. Menendez, who said he supported the Cuban twitter network known as ZunZuneo, said he may ask for separate reviews by other auditing agencies, including inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office.
He said he will advocate that pro-democracy programs continue to be run by the agency.
Menendez made the surprise request after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., separately asked for data about the program under the auspices of Congress's oversight responsibilities. "Will we have access to all the tweets or the messages that were sent by USAID or its contractors in full so we can judge here?" Flake asked. "Because we have to provide oversight, whether we authorize programs or fund them."
The USAID administrator told Flake that the agency doesn't have most of them but promised to turn over any documents it can obtain from contractors. "You'll have access to what we are able to gather," Shah said.
Menendez, who made the request without a committee vote, said the review will consider whether USAID's pro-democracy programs in Cuba were consistent with those run in other foreign countries, and whether USAID should operate what it has since acknowledged was a "discreet" program. The agency's full name is United States Agency for International Development.
The AP investigation revealed that the U.S. government took great care to keep its role hidden in the now-defunct ZunZuneo, which was publicly launched in 2010, using foreign bank transactions and computer networks. The AP also revealed that draft messages produced were overtly political, despite earlier U.S. government statements that the service had a more neutral purpose.
In four congressional hearings over three consecutive days, lawmakers have debated whether USAID, best known for its humanitarian mission, should be running such a cloak-and-dagger mission instead of government spy agencies like the CIA. Based on internal documents and interviews, AP reported that Cuban subscribers were neither aware it was created by the U.S. government nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., strongly defended ZunZuneo as a platform Cubans could use to communicate with each other amid government-imposed Internet restrictions. Rubio said he wants to restart the operation, which ended in 2012, although he acknowledged that USAID was perhaps not the appropriate federal agency to do so.
"Maybe USAID is not the perfect agency for this," Rubio said.
Rubio asked the USAID administrator, "This wasn't an intelligence program. We weren't spying on the Cuban government, were we?"
Shah replied, "No."
USAID publicly launched ZunZuneo 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. Flake said the Senate's review should consider whether such "discreet" programs endanger aid workers like Gross.
"Do we want to continue to fund programs like this that, in my view, might put USAID contractors or individuals from other countries, including Cuba, that participate in this program, in danger?" Flake asked. He said USAID could argue whether the program was legally authorized but said its involvement was "ill-advised."
In defending the program, the Obama administration and critics of Castro's government have pointed to federal audits and budgetary checks over the roughly $20 million that the Washington agency spends on Cuban democracy initiatives. But the author of the GAO study that Shah cited repeatedly this week said he wasn't asked about examining "the wisdom of conducting such activities."
The Senate committee's request to review the program's paperwork, two years after it was shut down, came despite the White House's assertions that Congress was fully informed all along about ZunZuneo.
Menendez on Thursday said USAID's Cuban program was not "in any way a cockamamie idea." His comments took direct aim at Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who earlier this week criticized the USAID program in similar terms — marking a rare departure from the Senate's tradition of staid decorum among lawmakers.
"It is dumb, dumb and even dumber to go ahead and suggest that there can be freedom, and we should seek Internet freedom globally, but somehow the people of Cuba don't deserve the same freedom," Menendez said. Leahy last week called the secretive program "dumb, dumb, dumb."
Former intelligence officers experienced in covert operations told the AP they could not recall the involvement of USAID in any previous similar intelligence activities. Former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer called the aid agency's secret operation "frankly, nuts."
"Not to say that that is an important mission, but why would we put that mission in USAID?" asked Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., at another hearing earlier this week. "Why wouldn't you look at some other part of the federal government to place that mission? To me, it seems crazy. It just seems crazy that you would be in the middle of that."
Associated Press writer Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. Follow Gillum on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jackgillum.