Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., on Wednesday sharply defended U.S.-run democracy programs in Cuba, saying it was "so important to offer the other side of the story, the side that promotes American values: God-given values like freedom, justice or liberty."
She added: "This issue we're debating ... is whether or not USAID should be taking steps to promote human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance throughout the world. I say yes."
Other lawmakers were uncomfortable with the notion that an agency best known for its humanitarian mission was undertaking operations best left to the professionals.
The chairman of the Senate panel that approves spending on such foreign programs, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said a day earlier he was never told about the Twitter-like operation, disputing assertions by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that Congress was properly informed. The Obama administration has said the program operated "discreetly" but wasn't covert.
Leahy, head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations, said USAID employees working openly on aid programs have complained that the agency's secretive programs were putting their lives at risk.
In defending the program, the Obama administration and critics of the Castro government have pointed to federal audits and budgetary checks-and-balances over the roughly $20 million USAID spends overall on Cuban democracy initiatives. The contractors who created ZunZuneo took great care to keep the U.S. government's role hidden from subscribers in Cuba through companies and servers in other nations and financing through a foreign bank.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said at Tuesday's hearing that USAID wasn't the appropriate home for such operations in hostile countries.
"Not to say that that is an important mission, but why would we put that mission in USAID?" Johanns said. "Why wouldn't you look at some other part of the federal government to place that mission? To me, it seems crazy. It just seems crazy that you would be in the middle of that."