WASHINGTON (AP) — The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development on Tuesday is beginning a series of appearances before lawmakers asking questions about his agency's secret "Cuban Twitter," a social media network built to stir unrest in the communist island.
First up in the questioning of administrator Rajiv Shah is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who publicly called the social media program "dumb, dumb, dumb."
Last week, an Associated Press investigation revealed that USAID oversaw the creation of the text message-based service, dubbed ZunZuneo for the sound made by a Cuban hummingbird. USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP.
A key question for the hearings will be whether the program endangered its users by concealing that the U.S. government was behind the program. The network was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned there after traveling repeatedly on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Cuban Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
Early Tuesday, Gross' lawyer released a statement that his client was going on a hunger strike. The ZunZuneo story was "one of the factors" Gross took into account in connection with his hunger strike, the attorney said.
"Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba," said the lawyer, Scott Gilbert. "USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another."
Lawmakers will also try to determine whether the program should have been classified as "covert" under U.S. national security law, which requires covert action to be authorized by the president and briefed to congressional intelligence committees.
Shah said last week that the ZunZuneo program was not covert, though "parts of it were done discreetly" to protect the people involved. He said on MSNBC that a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the State Department — including the Cuban Twitter project — found the programs to be consistent with the law.