Did the USAID Cuban Twitter Debacle ‘Taint All USAID Employees as Spies?’

Sen. Patrick Leahy asked if that was the case at an appropriations hearing Tuesday.

Rajiv Shah (L), administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), confers with committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) prior to testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
April 8, 2014, 8:04 a.m.

A man is in pris­on, pos­sibly for the rest of his life. A Twit­ter-like pro­gram has been ex­posed as a con­struc­tion of the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment, cre­ated with the hope of stir­ring demo­crat­ic un­rest in Cuba. The United States’ in­ter­na­tion­al de­vel­op­ment arm, USAID, is be­ing ac­cused of something like in­ter­na­tion­al es­pi­on­age.

And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., isn’t happy with any of the above.

“Does it taint all USAID em­ploy­ees as spies?” the Demo­crat from Ver­mont asked the ad­min­is­trat­or of the agency dur­ing a Tues­day Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­ations hear­ing.

“We sup­port civil so­ci­ety,” re­spon­ded USAID Ad­min­is­trat­or Rajiv Shah, in what was es­sen­tially a non-an­swer.

Leahy was chas­tising USAID for im­ple­ment­ing Zun­Zun­eo, a Cuban ver­sion of Twit­ter, which gained tens of thou­sands of users. The pro­gram was cre­ated un­der a broad ini­ti­at­ive for “demo­cracy as­sist­ance” in Cuba. Though, in Leahy’s words, “the le­gis­la­tion doesn’t say any­thing about a cockamam­ie idea.”

Cuba has not taken kindly to earli­er such in­cur­sions. In 2009, Alan Gross, a 64-year-old U.S. cit­izen, was sen­tenced to 15 years for pro­mot­ing In­ter­net ac­cess in the coun­try. He is now on a hun­ger strike.

And des­pite Gross’s jail­ing, Leahy un­der­scored, USAID went for­ward with the Zun­Zun­eo plan, jeop­ard­iz­ing his chances of re­lease.

Shah de­fen­ded his or­gan­iz­a­tion, say­ing the op­er­a­tion went along with the mis­sion “to im­prove ac­cess to in­form­a­tion and In­ter­net free­dom in many parts of the world.”

Leahy asked if the pro­gram was cov­ert.

“These pro­grams are con­duc­ted more dis­creetly pre­cisely be­cause [of a] re­cog­ni­tion [that] provid­ing In­ter­net ac­cess in an au­thor­it­ari­an en­vir­on­ment ex­poses people to risk,” Shah re­spon­ded, echo­ing a state­ment that USAID re­leased Monday (and also echo­ing the White House). He also said USAID op­er­ates dis­crete pro­grams in oth­er parts of the world, such as provid­ing sur­gery as­sist­ance in Syr­ia.

Leahy also asked if Shah knew whose idea the pro­gram was. Shah replied that it was in place be­fore he entered his po­s­i­tion.

Oth­er sen­at­ors, such as Lind­sey Gra­ham and Mary Landrieu, were keen to change the top­ic, high­light­ing USAID’s work in world health and food short­ages, and its pres­ence in Ukraine.

But Leahy pressed on.

“Did we we tell the people in Cuba that this was a U.S. gov­ern­ment pro­gram?” Leahy asked Shah dir­ectly.

“No,” he said.

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