Former intelligence officers experienced in covert operations told the AP they could not recall the involvement of USAID in any previous similar intelligence activities. Former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer called the aid agency's secret operation "frankly, nuts."
Baer questioned the agency's reliance on social media to promote democracy, noting that brief flourishes of Internet activism in Iran and Egypt were quickly snuffed out by authoritarian regimes.
"You can't run a revolution by Twitter," he said.
Draft messages produced for the nascent social media network were overtly political, documents obtained by the AP reveal. The Obama administration has said since last week that it did not send out political messages under the project, which it said was instead built to let Cubans speak freely among themselves.
Some messages sent to Cuban cellphones had sharp political commentary, according to the documents the AP obtained. One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who once had warned that the Internet was a "wild colt" that "should be tamed."
"Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. 'I told you so,' declares a satisfied Ramiro. 'Those machines are weapons of the enemy!'"
Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear whether they ultimately were transmitted by the service, which the U.S. government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.
Shah on Tuesday cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy-promotion programs — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found them to be consistent with the law. But the author of the GAO study told the AP that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert.
Leahy and other lawmakers said it had 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.
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Lara Jakes and Matthew Lee in Washington, and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. Follow on Twitter: Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum, Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler.