USAID Wants To Correct The Facts On Cuban Twitter: For Example, It Actually Had More Users!

from the not-very-convincing dept

It took a while, but the folks at USAID have finally responded to last week's AP story about how it created a Cuban version of Twitter, thus confirming every crackpot theory out there about how USAID is actually a wing of the CIA. In response, USAID claims that the report had a number of factual errors and it would like to set the record straight. Of course, none of the "facts" it adds seems to change the underlying story. It insists that the program was legal and not "covert" even if no one knew about it:

USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

That may be true, but doesn't really answer the major questions about the program, and whether or not it was appropriate, or how it would appear when -- inevitably -- it was revealed as a US front. USAID also admits that it sought to create a shell company to run the program after it became successful, but says that they were unable to do so after they couldn't attract private funds. There's also clearly a bit of hurt pride, in that USAID points out that the reporters claimed 40,000 Cubans used the system when the reality was it peaked at 68,000.

There are two areas where the USAID's "facts" are a bit more on point in responding to the claims that the execs recruited to run ZunZuneo were supposed to be kept in the dark about the company's origins. USAID insists that was not the case:
A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo. The staff member's affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.
Of course, that's worded in a way with plausible deniability. It's unclear how clear it was that the entire project was basically created by USAID, or if it was just a suggestion that USAID had provided some funds for a program that others had created. Also, having a USAID staff member "present" is different than having a USAID person note that USAID was in charge of the whole thing.

The other issue concerns the collection of private data and the use of ZunZuneo to foment anger towards the Cuban government. USAID notes that on social media, lots of people share information, but very few actually did so with ZunZuneo, and no information that was submitted was used. That narrowly avoids the question of whether the plan was to be able to make use of that data in the future, of course. Separately, USAID notes that while it did initially push some information to ZunZuneo users, that was more to get it started, and it soon stopped. Related to that, the claim that USAID hoped to use it to create Smart Mobs was a misreading of some brainstorming on a totally different project:
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. The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia. After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.
Again, while useful clarifications, it does suggest the kinds of things that the folks behind the program, knowing full way they were funded by USAID, were thinking of doing. While it's good to see these additional details, it will do little to quell the concerns that USAID seems to be involved in programs well beyond what many people assume is reasonable. I could see the organization helping to fund a project started outside of USAID -- but being so intimately involved in the creation and management still seems quite dangerous.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Violynne (profile), Apr 8th, 2014 @ 3:37am

    Huh. You'd think they'd just tweet this news instead of writing a report about it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 3:45am

    USAID works in places where we are not always welcome.

    That is a problem if you work for a government of a different country, as it is encroaching on another countries sovereignty.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 3:57am

    Peace Corps Anyone?

    Supposedly, if you work for the Peace Corps and then want to go work for an intelligence agency there is a *minimum* 5-6 year window where your application will not even be considered - theoretically, to demonstrate that the Peace Corps are not an extension of our intel agencies.

    Unfortunately, after these revelations it's going to be damn near impossible for any host country to take them seriously

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    zip, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 4:16am

    information sharing is good

    It's refreshing to know that at least one agency of the US government believes in and promotes the idea that we should "break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing”" as they put it.

    It seems that Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning couldn't have agreed more with that goal.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Anone, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 4:19am

    Seem to bad in a way

    On the surface it seems like a good thing to do, it's to bad that the US government has infested every aspect of what was supposed to be good about the internet with a black oily sludge of spying.

    68000 users for a country that has pretty crappy internet access seems pretty good.

    If they want to prove it wasn't an intelligence operation open source it, someone in cuba will pick it up and it won't have the taint, maybe even other places.

    Lets be serious it's not like twitter is much better on the privacy front.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    zip, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 4:54am

    Re: Peace Corps Anyone?

    Many people who work as spies often don't know they're working as spies. They might be sent to an area to make friends and contacts and generate goodwill, in whatever field they're working in, blazing a trail for others (like professional spooks) to follow. Or doing seemingly 'regular' jobs that have a secret, ulterior purpose.

    For instance, the health care workers who gave Usama Bin Ladin's children vaccinations could have done their job perfectly well without knowing anything about the CIA mission they were on. In fact, having them *not* knowing anything would have been the standard way for any spy agency to set it up.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    MadAsASnake (profile), Apr 8th, 2014 @ 5:34am

    It is a problem with all aid like this that it becomes imbued with the motivations and proclivities of the donors (be that governments, NGO's or private individuals). This is inescapable, even when the intentions are for the best. The realities on the ground and the nature of the work mean you have to get involved - you cannot give meaningful aid and stay detached, which is why it is really important to declare these things up front. Look at the mess in Haiti for a pretty much textbook case of how not do do it - and that is without the intelligence meddling.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    Forest_GS, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 5:57am

    Ha!

    The headline reads like an Onion article.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    art guerrilla (profile), Apr 8th, 2014 @ 7:02am

    Re: Re: Peace Corps Anyone?

    well, i might quibble with the 'people don't know they are being used as spies' statement...
    remember, kampers, 'academics' 'bidness people', and others have ALWAYS been used either as cover, or they recruit 'real' people who like playing james bond, etc, and do it for the thrill and as a 'service to their country' (NOT)...
    for example, anthropologists and archaeologists have been commonly used as cover for spooks, not to mention using 'real' anthropologists, etc to do field work, gather info, and or people to target...
    both in that field and in psychology where doctors BREAK THEIR hippocratic oath (though they *ahem* torture their logic to make it as if they are serving as doctors to prevent any permanent damage from torture) to serve the spooks, do their bidding, and put a thin film of credibility on the spook's actions...
    they are traitorous slime, JUST LIKE the spooks who mistakenly think they are serving their country when they shit all over the constitution...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    avideogameplayer, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 7:24am

    Re: information sharing is good

    Don't you mean opening up the doors to NSA?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 8th, 2014 @ 7:55am

    Re:

    This is an excellent point. The stated purpose of USAID is to render economic assistance, originally to nations that were ravaged during WW2. It's an odd idea that it would operate in any nation where it was actively not wanted.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 8th, 2014 @ 10:08am

    Re: Re: Re: Peace Corps Anyone?

    What you say is true. But what zip says is also true -- spy agencies do, whenever they can, use unwitting people to help with their activities. It can be tough to pull off, but there is a huge benefit in having intelligence assets be genuinely unaware that they are intelligence assets.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Renegade, Apr 9th, 2014 @ 6:42am

    Spending whose money where?

    Uh, so US tax dollars are spent on news, weather and sports tweets in Cuba?

    Can someone remind me again how this isn't a blatant abuse of tax victims' money?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Liberated Citizen, Apr 9th, 2014 @ 8:12am

    USAID also used in Ukraine

    Pierre Omidyar co-funded Ukraine revolution groups with US government, documents show

    Pando has confirmed that the American government – in the form of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – played a major role in funding opposition groups prior to the revolution.

    http://pando.com/2014/02/28/pierre-omidyar-co-funded-ukraine-revolution-groups-with-us-government-do cuments-show/

    Congress is supposedly going to investigate. To me it sounds like that will be the fox guarding the hen house according to the AP story...

    "Two senior Democratic lawmakers said they knew nothing about the effort, and the Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said his panel plans to look into the initiative next week.

    "If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID's budget.

    But several other lawmakers voiced their support for ZunZuneo.

    Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a platform to talk to each other. "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."

    http://bigstory.ap.org/article/us-secretly-created-cuban-twitter-stir-unrest

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Lori S (profile), Apr 9th, 2014 @ 8:23am

    Re: Spending whose money where?

    That really ticked me off too. How is this any different than being robbed in an alley other than with a mugging you would have a shot at seeing the perp prosecuted. Each year it takes longer and longer to pay our taxes. They also used USAID in Ukraine.

    ‘Tax Freedom Day’ falls three days later this year

    snip

    By April 21, Americans will have made enough to pay the $3 trillion in federal taxes and $1.5 trillion in state taxes — more than they will spend on food clothing and housing combined.

    http://dailycaller.com/2014/04/07/tax-freedom-day-falls-three-days-later-this-year/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Lori S (profile), Apr 9th, 2014 @ 8:25am

    Re:

    That's why Russia complained. We started the crap in the Ukraine.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Lori S (profile), Apr 9th, 2014 @ 8:32am

    Re:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Apr 11th, 2014 @ 8:17am

    Re: USAID also used in Ukraine

    When will they start doing that in ours?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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