Why USAID’s Cuban Twitter Program was Secret

The Associated Press' story on the U.S.-backed Cuban Twitter program is only part of a long history of secret programs in Cuba and around the world. I have been filing FOIA requests on USAID for the past decade, to be met each time with minimal response, if at all.

Jeremy Bigwood

On April 3, three journalists from the Associated Press (AP) published the first in a series of well-investigated stories about a heretofore unknown U.S. government-funded project in Cuba. They described how an opaque organization within the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) called the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) proffered a Twitter-like social networking app to Cuban cell phones. Little did the apps’ users suspect that they were receiving information from and being monitored by an entity of the U.S. government.

While AP pulled off an incredible investigative coup—one that resulted in a tense Senatorial committee hearing on Tuesday April 8—the project AP describes is only part of a long history of such programs in Cuba and around the world. Unfortunately the story focused attention on a project that no longer exists, rather than on the U.S. government entity USAID/OTI, which continues to operate secretly throughout the world.

While the congressional hearing featured contortionist displays dodging the secrecy of the program, I have been filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on USAID for the past decade, to be met each time with minimal response, if at all. These are not the workings of a “discreet” government body, but a secret one—but getting back to the AP story first.

The app was called “ZunZuneo,” the Cuban name for the sound of the world’s smallest hummingbird and Cuba’s national bird, the Zunzún. Phil Peters, on his blog “The Cuban Triangle” described how ZunZuneo operated:

“Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies. For example, subscribers were asked whether bands critical of the government should have been allowed to perform at the Juanes concert. The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”

According to USAID—in one of their rare admissions about the project—the ZunZuneo app was used by about 68,000 unsuspecting Cubans from 2010 to 2012, when funding dried up.

The AP story detailed how the ZunZuneo operation in Cuba was set up in 2010 to operate through a tangled web of often-unwitting front companies and banks—some in the Cayman Islands and some in Spain. “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," stated a memo from one of the project’s contractors, cited by the AP reporters. As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project explained to me: “Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.”

Immediately after the first AP story broke, the White House recognized its potential impact and went on the offensive. White House spokesman Jay Carney attempted to blur the crisp picture of deceit that the AP had presented, saying, “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this is a covert program are wrong…. [The Zunzuneo program] was a development assistance program about increasing the level of information that the Cuban people have and were able to discuss among themselves.”

The State Department responded next. Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf hissed a “D” word: “Discreet does not equal covert. Having worked for almost six years at the CIA and now here, I know the difference.” Then, because the documents were already in the public arena and the damage done, Harf said that they hadn’t really been classified in the first place. “It wasn’t secret,” she said. “Secret is a technical term, and it was not classified…. This was discreet.”

Senator Leahy at April 8 hearingThe next day, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) called the ZunZuneo project “dumb, dumb, dumb.” During a Senate Committee on Appropriations: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs hearing on April 8, Leahy sat across the room from an uncomfortable USAID head Rajiv Shah. Leahy immediately went on the offensive, calling ZunZuneo a “cockamamie” idea that had “had no possibility of working." Shah responded that ZunZuneo was “done discreetly" to protect the people involved and tried to maintain the fiction that it was not covert.

Leahy then focused on some of the blowback of the program, rhetorically asking if it didn’t “taint all USAID employees as spies.” He also noted, "We're already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world saying, 'How could they do this and put us in danger?'"

While USAID’s overall budget was made available to Congress, specific operations were not. Therefore, unless a Congressperson asked specifically about a given USAID program, she or he would not know about the project, and certainly not which development firm was being contracted—let alone what they were doing. Congress had no actual knowledge of what was going on. In many cases this in itself will constitute a hidden, or covert program.

 

The United States has aimed propaganda at Cuba since the early 1960s, using radio, dropping leaflets, and sometimes print media. Perhaps the first attempt to do this through the Internet was CubaNet, starting in 1994. While CubaNet claims to engage in “independent journalism,” a copy of a 1999 USAID grant I obtained through a January 20, 2006 FOIA request shows that this is not the case. The first page of the grant states, “the U.S. Agency for International Development (hereinafter referred to as "USAID" or "Grantor") hereby grants to CubaNet News, Inc. (herein after referred to as CubaNet or "Recipient”), the sum of $98,000.00 to provide support for a program in the expansion of an Internet website for independent Cuban journalists in Cuba.” CubaNet is not of Cuban origin, but a part of the U.S. government propaganda apparatus.

Similarly, from information gleaned from the rare instances of documents I obtained through the FOIA, it appears likely that the concept of the ZunZuneo program was first envisioned in 2006, when President George W. Bush created a multi-agency developed plan called CAFC II (Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Version Two), that aimed for a “Cuban Transition Government” to be executed largely by OTI. It was a huge plan, but the biggest concern is that one of the ideas was to undertake a false-flag operation to “expand use of third-country broadcasting into Cuba,” which did indeed take place in the ZunZuneo project. Like ZunZuneo, CAFC II was a failure, a waste of taxpayer money, and an embarrassment to the people of the United States.

Later, on December 3, 2009—before the ZunZuneo program took off—Cuban authorities arrested USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in Havana’s José Martí International Airport for smuggling communications technology including satellite phones into Cuba to set up wireless Internet connections for members of the Jewish and Freemason community. In 2011, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison, which at his age is equivalent to a “death sentence,” according to Sen. Leahy. “As far as I can tell, the USAID and the Obama administration have all but forgotten about him,” Leahy said. Gross’ lawyer Alan Gilbert told the Washington Post that “once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba.”

 

Many of USAID’s “discreet” projects aimed at regime change—or “transition,” as they prefer to call it—are handled by OTI. Founded in 1994, OTI contracts to a mixture of beltway bandits, development firms, and so-called “NGOs” in the United States. In the case of ZunZuneo, the development firm contracted by OTI was Creative Associates International, Inc. (CAI). In the case of Alan Gross’ operation it was the similarly named Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI). These contractors, in turn, connect with target country NGOs or other institutions and can fund local target country projects on a moment’s notice. However, unlike regular donors, OTI personnel are usually present throughout the money chain. OTI is unlike any other part of USAID or any part of the government, with the exception of the CIA. Here is how OTI describes itself in its Award/Contract to Creative Associates in 2008, that I attained through a FOIA request in 2009:

“OTI has a unique management style and can be described as an implementing or operational donor. This management style requires a strong partnership between OTI and their contractor” (12).

“The objective…is to provide the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) with the means to support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners…in priority countries in crisis. OTI's program team, comprising OTI and contractor personnel, will work on the ground to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key political transition and stabilization needs. Through specific task orders, the contractor will establish, staff, manage, operate, and support a flexible quick-response mechanism capable of administering and implementing targeted activities and for providing support to U.S. Government personnel” (13).

“In countries undergoing a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, violent conflict to peace, or other pivotal political events, OTI seizes these windows of opportunity and seeks to act as a catalyst for positive political change. OTI programs are short-term—typically, two to three years in duration…” (8).

“In order to fulfill its mandate OTI must have the ability to change, reorient or refocus its programs in order to rapidly respond to new strategic opportunities in the country or region…” (12).

Here are the criteria for their engagement in a given country:

“ • Is the country important to U.S. national interests?

• Is there a window of opportunity?

• Can OTI's involvement significantly increase the chances of success?

• Is the operating environment sufficiently stable?” (10).

OTI elaborates the first criterion as follows:

“ • Is the country significant to U.S. national interests? While humanitarian aid is distributed on the basis of need alone, transition assistance is allocated with an eye to advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives and priorities” (10).

This is not about letting people talk to each other, but about advancing OTI’s skewed view of what is in the best interests of the United States.

While USAID insists that its programs aren’t secret, they refuse to disclose their activities to journalists. As reporter Tracey Eaton, who has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests about USAID’s Cuba programs, wrote recently in his blog, “USAID is about as transparent as mud.”

 

It is extremely difficult to get information about “transition” programs from USAID, and even more difficult from OTI. We can obtain general budgets, but the specific organizations and projects that are funded are kept secret. Over the last decade, I have filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to USAID requesting the names of the development firms and NGOs it was funding in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and other countries.  In the case of Venezuela, USAID responded by withholding the names of its grantee organizations. The case went to court as a FOIA lawsuit (cited in The New York Times) in the DC Circuit, where the government’s judge rubber-stamped USAID’s decision to keep information about its projects secret.

Other than obtaining leaked documents from people involved in the project (as AP apparently did), or becoming an OTI employee with a security clearance, there is no way that anyone could have produced the ZunZuneo story through a discussion with a press officer, through the Freedom of Information Act, or even through a Congressperson. As such, there is little difference between CIA operational files and those of OTI: neither can be obtained through the normal channels. We are not talking “discreet” here—this is about secrecy.

Furthermore, USAID’s OTI carries out operations—just like the CIA does—in places where other entities of the U.S. government dare not go. “OTI is sometimes the only USAID or U.S. government presence in countries in transition, including those that are emerging from crises or those where other U.S. Government personnel have been evacuated,” says the boilerplate language of the OTI contract to a CAI that I received in 2009.

The high level of security clearance required to do business with OTI also indicates that the agency’s activities are secret. There are several levels of security clearances, ranging from “Controlled Unclassified,” “Public Trust Position,” “Confidential,” “Secret ,” “Top Secret,” and “Top Secret Compartmentalized.” In this case, even CAI personnel need “secret” level clearances for access to facilities or information. The fact that security clearances at the “secret” level are necessary appears to indicate a secret operation.

USAID did not respond to my question about whether or not full-time OTI employees require a secret or higher security clearance for employment. But even a quick Google search provides ample evidence. For instance, on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a government-oriented think tank, there is an advertisement for a job opening requiring a security clearance to obtain full-time work at OTI. Contracts between OTI and “development firms” often provide an attachment from the Pentagon called a “Contract Security Classification Specification.”

In the case of the FOIA-requested CAI contract, this was not an issue:

“At the time of award, the contractor does [X] does not [  ] have a Secret level facilities clearance”—with the “does” selected (47).

The very fact that security clearances at the “secret” level are necessary for this work points toward the program’s secrecy. Compounded by context on OTI’s history and my historic FOIA request refusals, it becomes another strong indicator that the work was indeed secret, and not “discrete” as alleged.

The “discreet” versus “secrecy” issue is best summed up by another of Kornbluh’s comments to me on April 12: “’Discreet’ is the new ‘covert’ and USAID is the new CIA.”

 

In his press conference after AP’s breaking story, White House spokesman Jay Carney said ZunZuneo was “part of an effort that we undertake not just in Cuba, but elsewhere.” USAID Director Shah backed this up. The result of OTI’s malfeasance has been felt the world over. These programs are counterproductive and will not only sully the already bad reputation of the United States for conducting so much policy under the table, but will also jeopardize the lives of unwitting participants.

NACLA has been covering the overt and covert programs of USAID since March 1968. NACLA stories were instrumental in bringing down another secretive branch of USAID, the Office of Public Safety (OPS). OPS—like the modern-day OTI—was a secretive operation. It trained right-wing police and paramilitaries and involved itself with death squads, torture, and other unethical activities throughout the world. In 1974, after some eight years of NACLA’s exposing OPS, Congress was able to close it down. The momentum for ridding ourselves of OTI does not yet exist in Congress, but if we can keep it on the agenda long enough, this blight on our collective reputation worldwide can be expunged. 


This article has been amended to reflect the following correction: Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison, not 35.


Jeremy Bigwood is an investigative journalist, researcher and photojournalist with a background in science. He has written for NACLA, the American Journalism Review, The Village Voice, and many other publications. As a photojournalist covering the Central America civil wars from 1984-1994, his images were published worldwide. Since that time he has used the Freedom of Information Act and other open government laws as well as various archival repositories to give the public a better understanding of U.S. government both home and abroad.

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