The U.S. agency official in charge of the secret “Cuban Twitter” project designed to stir unrest among the country’s youth and spark protests against its government will testify before the Senate next week amid allegations of misleading Congress over the true nature of the program.
Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is scheduled to appear before the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee Tuesday to discuss the ZunZuneo program, which built a large Twitter-like social media network for Cubans to communicate with outside of the highly censored Cuban Internet.
According to the Associated Press report that broke the story, the platform attracted 40,000 users in two years without disclosing U.S. government involvement, and had plans to engage users in political discussions, fuel discontent against Cuba’s communist government, and even organize demonstrations against the Castro-led regime to destabilize its hold on the country in an attempted “Cuban Spring.”
Vermont Democrat and subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy described the program as “dumb, dumb, dumb” on MSNBC Thursday, and said lawmakers were not fully briefed on the details of or the intentions behind USAID’s program.
“I know they said we were notified,” Leahy told the Associated Press. “We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it.”
Leahy plans to ask Shah who was behind the “bright idea,” and why Congress wasn’t given “specific” details about the ZunZuneo since it was funded with taxpayer dollars.
House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee Chairman and Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz is planning a similar inquiry into the project.
“That is not what USAID should be doing,” Chaffetz said. “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.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday the program wasn’t intended to be “covert,” but wasn’t advertised in order to give Cubans an opportunity for free expression outside of the purview of a disapproving Cuban government.
“I am not aware of individuals here in the White House who were involved,” Carney said describing the nature of the program as “discreet.” He went on to explain the program had been “debated in Congress,” and deemed lawful by the Government Accountability Office.
In a slightly dissident move from the rest of Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez expressed support for programs like ZunZuneo.
“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.