Did the USAID Cuban Twitter Debacle 'Taint All USAID Employees as Spies?'

Sen. Patrick Leahy. D-Vt., speaks with USAID's Dr. Rajiv Sha Tuesday. Sen. Patrick Leahy. D-Vt., speaks with USAID's Dr. Rajiv Sha Tuesday. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

A man is in prison, possibly for the rest of his life. A Twitter-like program has been exposed as a construction of the American government, created with the hope of stirring democratic unrest in Cuba. The United States' international development arm, USAID, is being accused of something like international espionage.

And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., isn't happy with any of the above.

"Does it taint all USAID employees as spies?" the Democrat from Vermont asked the administrator of the agency during a Tuesday Senate appropriations hearing.

"We support civil society," responded USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, in what was essentially a non-answer.

Leahy was chastising USAID for implementing ZunZuneo, a Cuban version of Twitter, which gained tens of thousands of users. The program was created under a broad initiative for "democracy assistance" in Cuba. Though, in Leahy's words, "the legislation doesn't say anything about a cockamamie idea."

Cuba has not taken kindly to earlier such incursions. In 2009, Alan Gross, a 64-year-old U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 15 years for promoting Internet access in the country. He is now on a hunger strike.

And despite Gross's jailing, Leahy underscored, USAID went forward with the ZunZuneo plan, jeopardizing his chances of release.

Shah defended his organization, saying the operation went along with the mission "to improve access to information and Internet freedom in many parts of the world."

Leahy asked if the program was covert.

"These programs are conducted more discreetly precisely because [of a] recognition [that] providing Internet access in an authoritarian environment exposes people to risk," Shah responded, echoing a statement that USAID released Monday (and also echoing the White House). He also said USAID operates discrete programs in other parts of the world, such as providing surgery assistance in Syria.

Leahy also asked if Shah knew whose idea the program was. Shah replied that it was in place before he entered his position.

Other senators, such as Lindsey Graham and Mary Landrieu, were keen to change the topic, highlighting USAID's work in world health and food shortages, and its presence in Ukraine.

But Leahy pressed on.

"Did we we tell the people in Cuba that this was a U.S. government program?" Leahy asked Shah directly.

"No," he said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.