WASHINGTON (AP) — Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like network that the U.S. government secretly built in Cuba were overtly political and poked fun at the Castro brothers, documents obtained by The Associated Press show. The messages conflict with claims by the Obama administration that the program had no U.S.-generated political content and was never intended to stir unrest on the island.
Disclosure of the messages, as described in internal documents, came as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress in sometimes- confrontational testimony Tuesday that his agency's program was "absolutely not" covert and was simply meant to increase the flow of information.
An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba's Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government.
At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was "cockamamie" and not adequately described to Congress.
USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly maintained it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah whether the project's goal was to "influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users" or "to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government."
"No, that is not correct," Shah said. "The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other," he said. "It was not for the purpose you just articulated."
But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire. One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the Internet was a "wild colt" that "should be tamed."