AP: US built Cuban social-media platform as means to undermine Castro regime

posted at 9:21 am on April 3, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

And … ended up providing a free social-media network for no reason at all. According to the Associated Press, the normally-aboveboard USAID used Cayman shell corporations to hide a covert effort to use Cuban cellphones as a means to spread information that would allow the people to understand the nature of the Castro regime. ZunZuneo ended up being popular, but in the end USAID never sent out anything in support of its intended mission:

The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” – a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

If true, this will present enormous complications for USAID, whose public mission is to provide aid for the needy around the world. Those efforts are intended to build support for Western democracy in an “actions speak louder than words” paradigm. Until now, the agency has denied any provenance over covert operations aimed at hostile governments, which means that their efforts in the future will come under a great deal more scrutiny.

Plus, it appears that USAID never informed its Congressional oversight panels of its activities, and one Senator wants to know why. Senator Pat Leahy also wondered aloud whether this has anything to do with a USAID official that has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than four years:

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.

“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” he said. “There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the fact that it was apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.”

That’s one good question. Another would be why USAID went to all this risk and cost, only to never put the network to its intended use. It lasted more than two years, which gave USAID plenty of time to build a following in Cuba, and yet they apparently never once tried to boost dissent on the island. Another good question will be how this project was funded and managed. They spent more than $1.6 million in funds earmarked for a project in Pakistan, according to the AP, which might raise a few more eyebrows on Capitol Hill about how agencies are shuffling funds around to unauthorized projects.

Plus, it also has a whiff of the NSA scandal, too:

“Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” one written proposal obtained by the AP said. Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”

Of course, had this worked, it would have been hailed as a success story. Unfortunately, right now it looks like the worst of government programs: unauthorized, secret, incompetent, and snooping. Cubans who would normally be our friends will start wondering just how friendly we actually are, while other nations may wonder what else the US government may be cataloging through the latest fun smartphone app.


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That’ll show em.

Akzed on April 3, 2014 at 9:29 AM

FAIL

workingclass artist on April 3, 2014 at 9:33 AM

When did this effort begin? Under Øbama or Bush? Leahy is generally “concerned” only when he wants to criticize Republicans.

ExpressoBold on April 3, 2014 at 9:34 AM

unauthorized, secret, incompetent, and snooping

Doesn’t that also describe the Obama administration?

albill on April 3, 2014 at 9:34 AM

That kind of stuff is counter productive. It gives credence to dictators when they say the us is behind all the ills in their country. The Venezuelan president is going to seize on this and remind people that has been saying that the us is behind the chaos in his country and the inflation and economic collapse is the manufacturing of the us government trying to undermine him.

coolrepublica on April 3, 2014 at 9:35 AM

Unfortunately, right now it looks like the worst of government programs: unauthorized, secret, incompetent, and snooping.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it

[snip]

Suzanne Hall, then a State Department official working on Clinton’s social media efforts, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the ZunZuneo project.

Flora Duh on April 3, 2014 at 9:37 AM

When did this effort begin? Under Øbama or Bush? Leahy is generally “concerned” only when he wants to criticize Republicans.

ExpressoBold on April 3, 2014 at 9:34 AM

The project, dubbed “ZunZuneo,” slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross.

Flora Duh on April 3, 2014 at 9:39 AM

Unfortunately, right now it looks like the worst of government programs: unauthorized, secret, incompetent, and snooping.

…JugEars is going to be mad when he reads about this…after partying/fund raising all night in Chi-town!

KOOLAID2 on April 3, 2014 at 9:47 AM

AP: US built Cuban social-media insurance industry takeover platform as means to undermine Castro regime freedom

fify.

Difficultas_Est_Imperium on April 3, 2014 at 9:48 AM

Obama realized he probably wasn’t so different from Castro.

It lasted more than two years, which gave USAID plenty of time to build a following in Cuba, and yet they apparently never once tried to boost dissent on the island

Coming next year, Covered Cuba.

Oil Can on April 3, 2014 at 9:56 AM

I wonder who’s next to be outed. I suspect in its panic that O’s minions will have to turn the boat around slated to deliver 10 million Obama Phones to Somalia. Oh, never mind. They’ve already been ‘pirated’…

vnvet on April 3, 2014 at 9:58 AM

It’s too bad that “The cupboard is bare“, otherwise, we would want to eliminate this kind of crap.

rightside on April 3, 2014 at 10:29 AM

I get the intent, but then to use it the way they did, it’s head in hands stupidity. These guys really are a foreign policy disaster of the first magnitude.

WitchDoctor on April 3, 2014 at 10:36 AM