- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.

McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.

McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.

According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo - slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.

Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content”: news messages on soccer, music and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” - mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes.

“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”

The program’s legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization and that Congress should be notified.

The Obama administration on Thursday said the program was not covert and that it served an important purpose by helping information flow more freely to Cubans. Parts of the program “were done discreetly,” Rajiv Shah, USAID’s top official, said on MSNBC, in order to protect the people involved.

The administration also initially said Thursday that it had disclosed the program to Congress - White House spokesman Jay Carney said it had been “debated in Congress” - but hours later shifted that to say it had offered to discuss funding for the program with several congressional committees. “We also offered to brief our appropriators and our authorizers,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Two senior Democratic lawmakers said they knew nothing about the effort, and the Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee said his panel plans to look into the initiative next week.

“If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it’s not something that should be done through USAID,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID’s budget.

But several other lawmakers voiced their support for ZunZuneo.

Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a platform to talk to each other. “The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies,” Menendez said.

The Associated Press obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development. The AP independently verified the project’s scope and details in the documents - such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates - through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those directly involved in ZunZuneo.

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