When is humanitarian aid from the U.S. a cover for espionage? And should the U.S. agency in charge of humanitarian aid ever be a conduit for spying? Those are the questions being raised in Congressional hearings investigating the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) about its involvement in a social media program in Cuba designed to undermine the Cuban government.
Simply put, the program was to create a “Cuban Twitter” called ZunZuneo (operational from roughly 2010 to 2012) that would allow Cubans to use cellphone text messaging to circumvent Cuban government restrictions on the Internet. Although created and funded through USAID, ZunZuneo subscribers were not to know that the network had been created by the U.S. government, nor to know that USAID contractors were collecting subscribers’ private data. Initially, it would be used for non-controversial, non-political content, but when the network reached a critical mass, the U.S. contractors running the network would introduce political content aimed to foment a “Cuban spring,” or in the words of a USAID memo, to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah twisted and turned as even friendly legislators took him and the program apart, with Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) calling it “dumb, dumb, dumb.”
Here are the questions it raises about humanitarian aid and the U.S. government.
In the wake of the NSA scandal regarding the misuse of governmental powers and the subsequent testimony of NSA executives denying—and lying—about the program, can USAID be trusted?
The self-proclaimed most transparent administration in history is most assuredly not, but it has a problem not only with disclosure, but with telling the truth. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s straightforward denial that the NSA was monitoring Americans’ telephone calls is now a public joke, but does that differ much from USAID administrator Rajiv Shah’s assertion that the agency had fully informed Congress of the cockamamie project? In charge of oversight of USAID’s budget, Senator Leahy denied that he or any member of Congress had been informed and briefed. White House press secretary Jay Carney’s affirmations that the program had been entirely transparent are, unfortunately for the former TIME reporter, completely unbelievable. The much savvier Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State during the life and death of ZunZuneo, actually revealed in her speeches how thin the U.S. commitment was to protecting the privacy of users of products such as this Cuban Twitter: Writing for The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer smartly noted that Secretary Clinton’s frequent speeches “dwelled on freedom of expression but not freedom from surveillance, and now—following the NSA revelations—we have a good idea why.”
Are parts of the Obama administration getting “dumb and dumber”?
When steadfast Democratic Senator Leahy repeats the adjective “dumb” to characterize the program, it isn’t the U.S. government’s shining moment. The entire incident seems to be something that Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd would have concocted in Spies Like Us. The story of how ZunZuneo got started, reached 40,000 subscribers, and then began suffering service outages until it finally went dark in 2012 without notice makes the worst nonprofit IT operation look good. As the initial big money from the U.S. government began to wind down, the contractors behind ZunZuneo realized that they had no strategy for keeping the network alive; there was no point to trying to generate ad revenue in a socialist country, and with “no clear monetization strategy…they were the first to panic and look for an exit,” according to Robinson. The Chase/Aykroyd part of the story is this: