WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional hearings scrutinizing the Obama administration's Twitter-like social media program it secretly built in Cuba are scrutinizing the question of whether the U.S. Agency for International Development should be running such an intelligence-like operation, instead of the CIA or other spy outfits.
The Senate Foreign Relations committee was meeting Thursday morning, the fourth congressional hearing in three days to feature testimony by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Wednesday sharply defended U.S.-run democracy programs in Cuba after an Associated Press investigation last week revealed the U.S. government built a communications network to undermine the communist government.
The congresswoman said Wednesday the programs "are so important to offer the other side of the story, the side that promotes American values: God-given values like freedom, justice or liberty." She added: "This issue we're debating, Mr. Chairman, is whether or not USAID should be taking steps to promote human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance throughout the world. I say yes."
Other lawmakers were uncomfortable with the notion that an agency best known for its humanitarian mission was undertaking clandestine operations best left to the professionals. And the Obama administration said Wednesday it would be "troubling" if messages sent out on the Cuban service were overtly political.
The chairman of the Senate panel that approves spending on such foreign programs, Sen. Patrick Leahy, said a day earlier he was never told about the Twitter-like operation, disputing assertions by Shah that Congress was adequately informed. The Obama administration has said the program operated "discreetly" but wasn't covert.
Leahy, head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations, said USAID employees working openly on aid programs have complained that the agency's secretive programs are putting their lives at risk.
In defending the program, the Obama administration and critics of Castro's government have pointed to federal audits and budgetary checks and balances over the roughly $20 million the Washington agency spends overall on Cuban democracy initiatives. The contractors who created ZunZuneo took great care to keep the U.S. government's role hidden from subscribers in Cuba through companies and servers in other nations and financing through a foreign bank.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said at Tuesday's congressional hearing that USAID wasn't the appropriate home for such operations in hostile countries.
"Not to say that that is an important mission, but why would we put that mission in USAID?" Johanns asked. "Why wouldn't you look at some other part of the federal government to place that mission? To me, it seems crazy. It just seems crazy that you would be in the middle of that."
Former intelligence officers experienced in covert operations told the AP they could not recall the involvement of USAID in any previous similar intelligence activities. Former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer called the aid agency's secret operation "frankly, nuts."
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. Follow Gillum on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jackgillum.