Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Inspector general probing US ‘Cuban Twitter’ plan

    Posted on Thursday, 07.17.14

    Inspector general probing US ‘Cuban Twitter’ plan

    WASHINGTON — The inspector general for the nation’s international aid
    agency is probing a once-secret Obama administration program that
    created a social media network in Cuba, The Associated Press has learned.

    The review centers on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s
    Twitter-like service in Cuba, which was meant to circumvent Internet
    restrictions on the island and undermine the government. USAID has been
    criticized for using the program to conduct overt political messaging
    and for not fully informing Congress about the scope of its work there.

    The inquiry follows an AP investigation in April that revealed the
    existence of the “Cuban Twitter,” known as ZunZuneo. That report found
    USAID contractors deployed the primitive text-messaging service by
    hiding sources of taxpayer money and not telling subscribers it was
    backed by the U.S. government or that it gathered private user data for
    political purposes.

    USAID’s inspector general confirmed Thursday it was focusing on the
    Cuban Twitter program and that it’s examining in part whether
    appropriate management controls — including proper oversight of ZunZuneo
    — were in place. It said it plans to publish its findings when the
    review is complete. Inspectors general act as auditors within federal

    The Obama administration has said ZunZuneo was not covert but
    “discreet,” and that it served an important, non-political purpose by
    helping information flow more freely to Cubans. But the AP found
    instances in which organizers drafted or sent politically charged
    messages, which the State Department said would be “troubling” if confirmed.

    In April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked USAID to turn
    over all records about the Obama administration’s secret Cuban twitter
    program as part of a broader review of the agency’s civil-society
    efforts worldwide.

    Separately, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate appropriations
    subcommittee for foreign operations, also asked for details about the
    program. His office said Thursday that USAID has not turned over the
    information yet, a delay the Vermont Democrat called “unacceptable.”

    Those requests followed a series of congressional hearings during which
    lawmakers debated whether USAID — best known for its humanitarian
    efforts — should be running such a cloak-and-dagger mission instead of
    spy agencies like the CIA. It’s unclear whether the IG investigation
    will focus on whether or not USAID may have violated federal law or if
    it conducted a covert operation.

    ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid
    detection by the Cuban government. They hoped the network would reach
    critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass
    gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political
    demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state
    and society.” At its peak, ZunZuneo drew in more than 68,000 Cubans,
    according to USAID, before it mysteriously disappeared in 2012.

    USAID said it has handed over all politically oriented messages from
    ZunZuneo to congressional investigators.

    The agency publicly launched ZunZuneo shortly after the 2009 arrest in
    Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He remains imprisoned after
    traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID
    mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only
    governments use.

    USAID administrator Rajiv Shah has said publicly that the program
    comported with U.S. law and congressional oversight.