But Leahy and other lawmakers questioned how thoroughly Congress was informed of the project. They've said it's been described only in broad terms and they were given no indications of the program's risks, its political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington's involvement.
Shah said that Congress has been notified about this program every year since 2008 in documents outlining USAID's budget. "The fact that we are discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program, illustrates that this is not a covert effort," he said.
He said "parts of it were done discreetly" to protect the people involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the State Department — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found the programs to be consistent with the law.
But the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, told the AP this week that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert. Gootnick said the GAO's report was focused on examining the extent that USAID knew what its contractors were doing. It found that the agency was adequately monitoring the work, but "we did not ask, nor did we report, on the wisdom of conducting such activities."
Shah maintained his agency's position Tuesday that the AP's report had a number of critical inaccuracies. He said the agency operates transparently and noted that he was discussing the Cuba program in Tuesday's open congressional hearing.
Shah said USAID did not set up a Spanish company to help run ZunZuneo. But strategy documents and expense reports obtained by the AP show the project not only planned to establish the Spanish company but also listed an end-of-month expense of $12,500 for the incorporation costs. USAID has not disputed that contractors set up a shell company in the Cayman islands called MovilChat that was used to hide the program's money trail.