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.