'Cuban Twitter' program: 5 questions Congress should ask USAID chief

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah. The aid agency recently came under fire for its Zunzuneo project. Photo by: U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan / CC BY-ND

On Tuesday, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah will testify on Capitol Hill to defend President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request for U.S. foreign assistance programs.

But aside from the foreign aid budget, Shah will surely also find himself defending his agency’s efforts to build a ‘Cuban Twitter’ platform, which some allege crosses the line between development and covert political action.

USAID categorically denied on Monday many of the conclusions drawn from last week’s article by The Associated Press, and reinforced that Congress knew about the Zunzuneo project — which was in no way illegal — all along.

READ: USAID confirms 'Cuban Twitter' but denies covert politics

The story’s authors claim they based their conclusions on “more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project's development.” The agency’s stalwart defense of the program’s legality and legitimacy, as well as those details USAID has not fully clarified, raise crucial questions about the fine line between protecting development implementers and misleading project beneficiaries and overseers.

Congress has a first chance to air those questions publicly on Tuesday, when the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations — already quite skeptical of the administration’s overseas spending choices — hosts Shah for what is sure to be one of the most intriguing of the season’s budget hearings, and perhaps a preview of future investigations and hearings related to the Zunzuneo project.

Here’s what we think the committee should ask him about USAID’s “Cuban Twitter” program:

1. How did USAID and Creative Associates International get their hands on hundreds of thousands of Cuban phone numbers?

The AP story states: “It all began with a half million cellphone numbers obtained from a communist government,” which begs the question: did it begin before that?

At a time when the U.S. National Security Agency is being raked over the coals for its own phone-tapping and personal information-collecting ways, how USAID got ahold of these phone numbers is a crucial detail — which the agency’s “Eight Facts about Zunzuneo” blog post did not discuss.

The answer to this question could ultimately shift the balance one way or the other between what counts as a “discrete” program, designed to limit exposure in a hostile environment, and what qualifies as a “covert” operation, undertaken with help from contacts inside a hostile government and willing to provide proprietary information to a foreign government.

If it turns out that USAID and its partner ascertained phone numbers from a source within the Cuban government, it will surely raise additional questions — justified or not — about whether the agency received any kind of assistance from the U.S. intelligence community to make that acquisition happen.

2. Who determines whether a program should be conducted ‘discreetly,’ and who decides what degree of ‘discretion’ is appropriate? Does USAID have a guiding policy for discreet programs in hostile environments?

When the AP story first broke, many were shocked by the lengths to which USAID supposedly went to conceal its own involvement in the project. The news agency claimed the aid agency created Spanish shell companies, interviewed applicants to run the platform without telling them it was U.S. government supported and channeled funds through a program in Pakistan.

USAID has since refuted — or at least toned down — all of those conclusions, while maintaining that the steps that were taken to minimize the agency’s visibility were to protect the agency’s implementing partners from retribution by the Cuban government.

That may well be a legitimate application of U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it sounds like a policy that would require clear notifications, oversight, and approval by officials with the authority to weigh the benefits of implementing a program “discreetly” against the costs of not implementing that program at all.

Congress should ask Shah who those persons are at USAID, and on what policy guidance they base their decisions about how to design — and conceal — a development program.

3. Do the Office of Transition Initiatives’ programs in Cuba require a different security clearance of USAID staff and implementing partners than what is required to access other OTI country programs?

OTI has a reputation for audacity (which the office itself embraces) and for operating with some degree of autonomy from the rest of USAID.

The “Cuban Twitter” episode suggests some of OTI’s country programs are treated with more secrecy than others, and that could prompt questions about how many people are actually aware of what those programs are doing on a daily basis.

If fewer people interact with OTI’s Cuba operations, then that limits the potential for individuals within the agency to voice their concerns or feedback about the program’s tactics and strategy.

Congress should ask Shah to disclose whether OTI’s Cuba programs require elevated or special security clearance, and whether there are other OTI country programs that have similarly elevated clearance requirements.

4. After USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested for disseminating technology in Cuba just prior to the launch of the Zunzuneo project, what changes did the agency make to the way it engages in information and technology programs in restrictive environments?

USAID faces a difficult dilemma. When the agency sent a contractor to Cuba to disseminate communications technology, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, a term that Alan Gross, an independent contractor, is currently still serving.

Now that USAID has sought to distance itself from the actual hand-to-hand dissemination of telecommunications hardware by creating a platform Cubans can access with their own cellphones, the result has hardly been any better for the agency’s reputation.

Congress should recognize its own members’ responsibility for supporting USAID’s efforts to engage in freedom of communication activities in restrictive environments like Cuba, and work with the administrator to reflect on the lessons that have been learned from two failed attempts to do so.

READ: USAID subcontractor’s ordeal in Cuba gets worse

5. How did USAID propose to evaluate whether or not the Zunzuneo project was successful?

Whether or not the Zunzuneo project was an attempt to get Cubans to talk with each other or an attempt to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with the communist regime is a question that should be approached by looking at the project’s goals and monitoring framework, if one exists. If USAID proposed to measure Zunzuneo’s success in the number of users the platform attracted, that is not an overtly political goal. But if the agency had a system in place to monitor the content of messages and whether those messages dealt with political and democracy-related themes, then it would be easier to suspect USAID of more proactive and political intentions.

And as a bonus, here’s the question we would like to see Shah ask Congress:

If the Zunzuneo project was in fact such poor public policy — and if it constituted an inappropriate role for USAID — what did Congress think the agency was doing with $25 million in Congressionally-appropriated funding for democracy programs in Cuba?

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.