WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department said Monday it was reviewing some of its secretive democracy-promotion programs in hostile countries after The Associated Press reported that the nation's global development agency may effectively end risky undercover work in those environments.
The proposed changes follow an AP investigation this year into work by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which established a Twitter-like service in Cuba and secretly sought to recruit a new generation of dissidents there while hiding ties to the U.S. government. The agency's proposed changes could move some of that work under America's diplomatic apparatus.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to elaborate on the plan Monday, saying it was "premature" because of ongoing deliberations. "We continue to believe we need to find creative ways to promote positive change in Cuba, but beyond that, we're still assessing what any change or what any impact would be," she said.
USAID's proposed policy closely mirrors a Senate bill this summer, which would prohibit the agency from spending money on democracy programs in countries that reject the agency's assistance and where USAID would have to go to "excessive lengths to protect program beneficiaries and participants."
In turn, some of USAID's high-risk democracy efforts would likely be moved under the State Department, according to government officials familiar with discussions about the policy who were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly. Other programs could shift to the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group that receives money from the U.S. government.
The changes would prevent USAID from running programs such as the "Cuban Twitter" project, known as ZunZuneo. In that operation, the AP found USAID and its contractor concealed their involvement, setting up a front company, routing money through Cayman Islands bank transactions and fashioning elaborate cover stories.
The subterfuge put at risk USAID's cooperation with foreign governments to deliver aid to the world's poor. Last month, it pledged more than $140 million to fight Ebola in West Africa.
In a statement, USAID said it would continue to carry out democracy initiatives in "politically restrictive environments" and aim to be transparent. But it said the new rules would balance safety and security risks, which would align with the proposed legislation.
"We will also examine risks that might constrain effective implementation of the projects or undermine the safety of our partners, such as programmatic, legal, financial, physical and digital security-related risks," it said.
But the Obama administration on Monday would not answer questions on how it could continue any democracy-promotion work in Cuba when such efforts are illegal there and would likely require secrecy to be effective. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said earlier this year that ZunZuneo was not a covert program, although he said "parts of it were done discreetly" to protect the people involved.
Government officials told the AP that USAID acknowledged changing its democracy-promotion policy after being questioned by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who wrote the agency following the AP's report in April. Leahy called the Cuba Twitter scheme "cockamamie" in a subcommittee hearing.
Both ZunZuneo and a second program to recruit Cuban dissidents were run by Creative Associates International, a Washington D.C. contractor. They were part of a larger, multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to bring about democratic reforms in politically volatile countries. But the officials said they were told USAID had concluded some democracy programs in hostile countries were not successful.
"Civil society organizations, and dissidents in countries with repressive governments where human rights are denied, deserve our support," said Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on foreign appropriations, in a statement Monday. "But USAID is a development agency, and its programs should be open and transparent, not covert. Nothing illustrates this more tragically than the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross in Cuba."
Gross, an American contractor, was arrested in December 2009 for smuggling sensitive technology into the country. He remains imprisoned there.
The AP reported that ZunZuneo evaded Cuba's Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service for political purposes that drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government. U.S. officials said it ended in late 2012 because funding ran out.
In August, the AP found USAID secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba to provoke political change, using the cover of health and civic initiatives. That program sent Latin youth — often posing as tourists — around the island to scout for people they could turn into political activists. Cuban authorities had questioned some of the travelers' true motives.
The agency's inspector general confirmed this summer it was examining the ZunZuneo program.
Butler reported from Istanbul. AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.
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