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'Cuban Twitter' Is Getting Burned on Capitol Hill

Today, the head of USAID testified about ZunZuneo before Congress, testimony that was marked by testy exchanges.

by Derek Mead
Apr 8 2014, 4:15am

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah testifying this morning. Image: Senate Appropriations Committee

Last week, we heard about ZunZuneo, a Cuban Twitter clone that was allegedly created by the US government to try and drum up data on Cuban internet users. Today, the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which funded ZunZuneo's development, testified about ZunZuneo before Congress, testimony that was marked by testy exchanges with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

To recap: the story was broken by the Associated Press, which alleged, based off of a treasure trove of government documents, that the goal of ZunZuneo was to foster dissent. The social network, which was powered by SMS much like Twitter, was ultimately a failure, and the program was cancelled in 2012 after a few short years.

While USAID, which is nominally tasked with sustainable development, humanitarian outreach, and the spreading of democracy (such as supporting elections in Afghanistan), did not refute that it developed ZunZuneo, it did vigorously dispute the AP's conclusions. In a listicle explaining ZunZuneo posted yesterday, USAID wrote that:

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a "covert" program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to "foment" "smart mobs" and start a "Cuban spring" to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it's not true.

This morning, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee regarding its fiscal year 2015 budget, and touted the agency's success in improving health care and infrastructure in a number of countries worldwide, an assertion that was met with support by the committee. But Leahy (D-VT) took the opportunity to ask Shah about ZunZuneo. (As the AP noted in a follow-up article, Leahy has previously called the program "dumb, dumb, dumb.")

To open the questioning, Leahy noted that even as we speak, Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, is in his fifth year in solitary confinement in Cuba, after being arrested during a USAID program that Leahy also characterized as "dumb in its inception." Leahy, who said he has visited Gross twice, took the Obama Administration to task for not trying to get Gross released. Gross, meanwhile, has started a hunger strike to protest his confinement. Adding to the intrigue, ZunZuneo was rolled out shortly after Gross's arrest.

Later in the testimony, Leahy asked Shah who developed the program. Shah said that the program was developed in 2007 and 2008, and referred Leahy to the legislation that oultined the program's mission, which set Leahy off.

"No, who developed the program," Leahy responded. "I've already read the legislation. The legislation didn't say anything about setting up a cockamamie idea in Cuba with Twitter accounts, on something that would be so easy to discover [the origins of]. Whose idea was this specific program to go to Cuba? Who?"

Shah responded that it was before his time at the agency, and argued that the "AP story had a number of critical inaccuracies." Shah said that he wasn't sure whose idea the program was specifically, but that "working on creating platforms to improve communication in Cuba and many other parts of the world is a core part of what USAID has done for some time, and continues to do."

Shah also said that it was "absolutely not" a covert program, and that it was publically disclosed in Congressional budget documents, which mirrors the agency's blog post from yesterday. Leahy responded to say that he'd read those documents, and that if "you read the bureaucratese and understand what the program was about, you're better at it than I am."

As Shah explained, USAID feels that breaking Cuba's information bloackade is a key goal, as is spreading internet freedom everywhere. At the same time, the agency also knows that it can't successfully do so unless the agency is "discreet" about it. If that's the case, the program doesn't necessarily fit the legal defintion of a covert operation, but it's subvervise nonetheless. 

More importantly, USAID says that documents acquired by the AP that outline ZunZuneo's potential to create "smart mobs" capable of inciting unrest were created by civilian contractors:

The "USAID documents" cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to "Smart Mobs" had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government's position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba. 

Again, it feels like a bit of a quibble. USAID argues the network was initially designed to share news, sports scores, and so on, but it's quite interesting to see that case studies showed the network's political potential. So while USAID is careful to point out that it doesn't support the use of a subversive social network to actually subvert the Cuban government, it was known from the beginning that ZunZuneo had such potential.

According to the AP, Shah is also expected to testify before the "Republican-chaired House Appropriations subcommittee, as well as the House and Senate foreign relations committees." While the first will presumably revolve around USAID's budget, as the Senate hearing today did, the addition of the last two committees suggests ZunZuneo has raised the ire of more of Leahy's colleagues.