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    ‘Cuban Twitter’ overtly political, poking Castros

    Posted on Tuesday, 04.08.14

    ‘Cuban Twitter’ _overtly political, poking Castros
    BY DESMOND BUTLER AND JACK GILLUM AND PETER ORSI
    THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

    WASHINGTON — Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like network that
    the U.S. government secretly built in Cuba were overtly political and
    poked fun at the Castro brothers, documents obtained by The Associated
    Press show. The messages conflict with claims by the Obama
    administration that the program had no U.S.-generated political content
    and was never intended to stir unrest on the island.

    Disclosure of the messages, as described in internal documents, came as
    the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress
    in sometimes- confrontational testimony Tuesday that his agency’s
    program was “absolutely not” covert and was simply meant to increase the
    flow of information.

    An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo,
    evaded Cuba’s Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service
    that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of
    thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S.
    government.

    At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of
    Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was
    “cockamamie” and not adequately described to Congress.

    USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly
    maintained it did not send out political messages under the project.
    Leahy asked Shah whether the project’s goal was to “influence political
    conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users”
    or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”

    “No, that is not correct,” Shah said. “The purpose of the program was to
    support access to information and to allow people to communicate with
    each other,” he said. “It was not for the purpose you just articulated.”

    But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire.
    One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban
    telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the
    Internet was a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.”

    “Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. ‘I told you so,’
    declares a satisfied Ramiro. ‘Those machines are weapons of the enemy!’”

    Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately
    clear if they were ultimately transmitted by the service, which the
    government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.

    Said one draft message: “THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think
    Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead.”
    Another called Castro the “The coma-andante,” a reference to Fidel’s age.

    “No,” wrote organizers, apparently nixing that text. “Too political.”

    A USAID spokesman did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment
    Tuesday.

    Last Thursday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that
    “no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this
    project or running it. It was the people — the Cuban people on the
    ground who were doing so.”

    However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in
    Chile, said Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts,
    though he was never told about ZunZuneo’s U.S. origins.

    “I don’t do cultural humor,” he said. “I do political humor. Everything
    I do is politics even if it is humor about politics.”

    “Obviously it has to be covert, there is no way you can do something
    like this in Cuba without someone paying a price,” he said.

    Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since
    the AP’s original disclosure. The latest came at a second hearing on
    Tuesday, this one before a House subcommittee. Two Florida lawmakers —
    Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart —
    said the Cuba project was successful.

    Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
    Committee, and Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the House
    Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said USAID should be
    applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk
    to each other.

    But Leahy and other lawmakers questioned how thoroughly Congress was
    informed of the project. They’ve said it’s been described only in broad
    terms and they were given no indications of the program’s risks, its
    political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington’s
    involvement.

    Shah said that Congress has been notified about this program every year
    since 2008 in documents outlining USAID’s budget. “The fact that we are
    discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program,
    illustrates that this is not a covert effort,” he said.

    He said “parts of it were done discreetly” to protect the people
    involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into
    democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the State Department —
    including the Cuban Twitter project — that found the programs to be
    consistent with the law.

    But the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, told the AP this week
    that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs
    were covert. Gootnick said the GAO’s report was focused on examining the
    extent that USAID knew what its contractors were doing. It found that
    the agency was adequately monitoring the work, but “we did not ask, nor
    did we report, on the wisdom of conducting such activities.”

    Shah maintained his agency’s position Tuesday that the AP’s report had a
    number of critical inaccuracies. He said the agency operates
    transparently and noted that he was discussing the Cuba program in
    Tuesday’s open congressional hearing.

    Shah said USAID did not set up a Spanish company to help run ZunZuneo.
    But strategy documents and expense reports obtained by the AP show the
    project not only planned to establish the Spanish company but also
    listed an end-of-month expense of $12,500 for the incorporation costs.
    USAID has not disputed that contractors set up a shell company in the
    Cayman islands called MovilChat that was used to hide the program’s
    money trail.

    In a blog posted Monday, USAID said references to the use of “smart
    mobs” in documents “had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo,” though
    the two are clearly referenced.

    The agency also said several CEO candidates for the network’s company
    were told explicitly that the U.S. government was involved. Documents
    show the creators of ZunZuneo wanted to keep the origins of the service
    secret from CEO candidates. The AP contacted two of the candidates, both
    of whom said they’d interviewed for the job with no idea of U.S.
    involvement.

    The program’s effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees
    have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such
    secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that
    the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.

    “We’re already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world
    saying, ‘How could they do this and put us in danger?’” Leahy said.

    Leahy, whose voice at times grew angry, demanded to know whose idea it
    was “to undertake this program in this manner.” Shah said ZunZuneo was
    designed in 2007 and 2008, although it launched publicly in Cuba in 2010
    — shortly after Shah was confirmed as USAID’s chief.

    The launch came months after American contractor Alan Gross was arrested
    in Cuba. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly on a separate,
    clandestine USAID mission to expand Cuban Internet access using
    sensitive technology that only governments use.

    Early Tuesday, Gross’ lawyer released a statement that his client was
    going on a hunger strike. The ZunZuneo story was “one of the factors”
    Gross took into account in connection with his hunger strike, the
    attorney said.

    “Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his
    safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba,” said the
    lawyer, Scott Gilbert. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after
    another.”

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