In a blog posted Monday, USAID said references to the use of "smart mobs" in documents "had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo," though the two are clearly referenced.
The agency also said several CEO candidates for the network's company were told explicitly that the U.S. government was involved. Documents show the creators of ZunZuneo wanted to keep the origins of the service secret from CEO candidates. The AP contacted two of the candidates, both of whom said they'd interviewed for the job with no idea of U.S. involvement.
The program's effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.
"We're already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world saying, 'How could they do this and put us in danger?'" Leahy said.
Leahy, whose voice at times grew angry, demanded to know whose idea it was "to undertake this program in this manner." Shah said ZunZuneo was designed in 2007 and 2008, although it launched publicly in Cuba in 2010 — shortly after Shah was confirmed as USAID's chief.
The launch came months after American contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba. He was imprisoned 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."
Orsi reported from Havana. Associated Press writer Richard Lardner in Washington and Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. Follow on Twitter: Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler and Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum.