WASHINGTON – A Twitter-like Cuban social media network that the U.S. government built to stir unrest was a "cockamamie" idea doomed to discovery and failure, the chairman of a Senate panel that oversees the U.S. Agency for International Development declared Tuesday. He said the agency didn't adequately describe to Congress the program it was secretly operating.
His voice rising in anger at moments, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "This one from the get-go had no possibility of working."
Rajiv Shah, USAID's top official, said the program, disclosed last week by The Associated Press, was part of the administration's efforts to provide new digital methods to increase the flow of information in and out of Cuba. Shah said the effort operated "discreetly" and was described in congressional budget justifications. But Leahy interrupted Shah to say he had read those budget documents.
"If you could figure out it meant this, you're doing a lot better job than most of us," Leahy said.
Shah said the AP's report had a number of critical inaccuracies, but he was not asked to describe them and did not specify his complaints. He said the agency operates transparently and noted that he was discussing the Cuba program in Tuesday's open congressional hearing.
When Leahy pressed Shah on whether USAID programs always operate in countries with the knowledge and approval of U.S. ambassadors and embassy staff, Shah replied, "That's the aspiration."
Leahy last week called the Cuba Twitter project "dumb, dumb, dumb" on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell show.
He 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.
An Associated Press investigation last week revealed that USAID oversaw the creation of the text message-based service, dubbed ZunZuneo for the sound made by a Cuban hummingbird. USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP.
- The Associated Press