Sen. Patrick Leahy ridiculed U.S. Agency for International Development’s Cuban Twitter program as a “cockamamie” idea that had the potential to endanger other Americans working for the agency.
Leahy, D-Vt., grilled USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah today in a Senate Subcommittee hearing dealing with USAID’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget, asking repeatedly who came up with the idea for “ZunZuneo,” the so-called Cuban Twitter program.
Shah told the committee he didn’t “specifically know” who was behind ZunZuneo,” the government-funded program revealed in a report last week by the Associated Press.
ZunZuneo, according to the AP, operated as a text message-based service that reached more than 48,000 users at its peak, with shell corporations operating the service with money from offshore bank accounts.
One of Leahy’s main critiques in the hearing was that the ZunZuneo program came to fruition soon after the arrest of American contractor Alan Gross. Cuban authorities arrested Gross in 2009 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for distributing communications and Internet materials under a USAID-funded program.
“If the Cuban government discovered it [ZunZuneo], did USAID consider what that might have meant for Alan Gross?” Leahy said.
Leahy said after the AP story revealed ZunZuneo, he received emails from USAID employees across the world that felt the report could potentially undermine their identity as aid workers.
“Doesn’t that taint all USAID employees around the world as spies?” Leahy said.
Shah defended the program.
“Working on creating platforms to improve communication in Cuba and in many other parts of the world is a core part of what USAID has done for some time and continues to do,” Shah said. “To the extent that the AP story or any other comment creates the impression that this effort or any other goes beyond that is simply inaccurate.”
Shah also denied reports that the program was “covert” in nature, and said the program was set up discreetly through USAID with authority backed by concrete legislation.
Leahy responded tartly, saying “The legislation doesn’t say anything about setting up a cockamamie idea in Cuba with Twitter accounts on something that the Cubans would be so easy to discover.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said one of his problems with the program was that it was considered logical to operate within USAID in the first place.
“When I think about USAID I think about words like ‘humanitarian,’ ‘caring,’ ‘road builders,’” Johanns said. “I can’t imagine why USAID would want to be involved in something like going into a country and trying to get internet access for people opposing the regime.”