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The ‘Cuban Twitter’ Covert Program: Misleading Denials by the Obama Administration

A simple reading of the report last week by the Associated Press that a U.S. State Department agency was engaged in a destabilization program in Cuba suggests that administration officials who responded to the report coordinated their comments to present a smoothly articulated but misleading case that the program was legal under U.S. law.

In its April 4 story, “White House Defends ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest,” the AP reported the details of a USAID-sponsored covert program in Cuba as follows:   

  •  “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.”
  • “USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail.”
  • “‘There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,’ according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project’s creators.”
  • “The social media project began in 2009 after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers. It was unclear to the AP how the numbers were obtained, although documents indicate they were done so illicitly from a key source inside the country’s state-run provider.”
  •  “The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo [the code name for the USAID project] was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don’t reveal where the funds were actually spent.”
  • “Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands—a well-known British offshore tax haven—to pay the company’s bills so the ‘money trail will not trace back to America,’ a strategy memo said.”

Obama administration officials, including the president’s spokesman, issued remarkably similar responses to the AP report, and as quoted in a Reuters report a short time later. In the AP story, the top USAID official was quoted as follows:

  • “USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said Thursday that [‘Cuban Twitter’] was not a covert program, though ‘parts of it were done discreetly’ in order to protect the people involved.”
  • “Shah said on MSNBC that a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the project to be consistent with the law. ‘This is simply not a covert effort in any regard.’”

Also on April 4, in “U.S. Created Twitter-like Service in Cuba, Denies Fomenting Unrest,” Reuters quoted administration officials as follows:

  • “’Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong,’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
  • [Carney continued:] “In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course, the government has taken steps to be discreet. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. This is not unique to Cuba.”
  • “State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the program was neither ‘secret’ nor ‘covert’ under the U.S. government’s definitions of those terms. ‘discreet does not equal covert,’ Harf told a news briefing.

Thus, according to the AP and Reuters, the president’s spokesman, Jay Carney, a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, and the USAID administrator, Rajjv Shah, all emphatically denied—using a common choice of words—that the Cuban Twitter program was not a “covert” program, while insisting instead that it was a “discreet” program, even though no such “discreet program” entity exists as such in federal law as applied to government intelligence operations. It is therefore odd, while asserting the legality of the Cuban Twitter program, that each of the Obama administration’s spokespersons would reference a highly nuanced but non-existent category of intelligence activity.     

Furthermore, despite the emphatic denials that the Cuban Twitter program was a covert action, the definition of “covert action” under federal law seems to match up quite well to the AP’s reported facts about the Cuban Twitter program. Under the applicable law—50 § 413b(e)—“covert action” is defined as follows: “An activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

In short, while explicitly denying that the Cuban Twitter program was illegal, Carney, Harf, and Shah sought to excise the established legal category “covert action,” replace it with the non-existent legal term “discreet action,” and thus divert the actual law that applied to the Cuban Twitter covert program away from it. And they did this in a seemingly coordinated effort.

Meanwhile, given that at least some operational aspects of the “Cuban Twitter” program appeared to have been conducted by the private contractors named in the AP report—Creative Associates International and Mobile Accord Inc.,— Carney, Harf, and Shah sought to leverage that fact while denying that the Cuban Twitter program was a covert action, given that the legal definition of covert action identifies “the United States Government,” not private contractors, as the entity engaged in the covert activities.  

However, the Obama administration clearly sought “to influence political … conditions” (per 50 § 413b(e)) in Cuba by “mastermind[ing] the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’” (as reported by the AP), thus likely satisfying the definition of “covert action” (50 § 413b(e)) in this instance.   

In addition, and just as problematic, and coordinated, the AP reported thatRajiv Shah, the USAID administrator, claimed that “a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the [Cuban Twitter] project to be consistent with the law.” And Reuters reported that Mark Herrick, USAID spokesman, claimed that “the project was reviewed in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and found to be consistent with U.S. law.” Yet, the GAO report issued in January 2013 did not mention the Cuban Twitter [or ZunZuneo] project, or one recognizable as such as detailed by the Associated Press. Nor did the GAO report say anything about “secret shell companies,” “operations financed through foreign banks,” “contractors that went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties” to the Cuban Twitter project, “front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail,” the “illicit collection of a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers,” or the “$1.6 million spent” on Cuban Twitter that was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan.” Either the authors of the January 2013 GAO report overlooked these details, or they were concealed from the GAO by Obama administration officials.

Also, Reuters reported that Harf, while asserting that the relevant congressional oversight committees had been duly notified about the Cuban Twitter program, said that “we submitted a congressional notification in 2008 outlining what we were doing in Cuba.” Yet, according to the AP report, “the social media project [Cuban Twitter] began development in 2009 after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers.” Thus, Harf claimed that the State Department’s notification requirement had been fulfilled in 2008 before President Obama took office and prior to the 2009 procurement by Creative Associates International of the cellphone numbers used in the Cuban Twitter project.  

In a follow-up story, the AP reported that Harf said, “We also offered to brief our [congressional] appropriators and authorizers.” Yet, in the same AP story, Senator Patrick Leahy said: “I know they said we were notified. We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it.” Leahy denied any knowledge of the Cuban Twitter program, and stated: “There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility.” The AP also reported that “by late Thursday [April 3] no members of Congress had acknowledged being aware of the Cuban Twitter program earlier than this week.” Nevertheless, Reuters reported that, when asked about Leahy’s comments that Congress had not been notified about the Cuban Twitter program, Harf said: “I can’t speak to why he knows certain things or doesn’t know certain things.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the overall impression given by the Obama administration’s assertions that the Cuban Twitter program was a “discreet program” as opposed to a “covert action”—with the apparent aim of circumventing the legal requirements of written presidential findings and congressional notifications (among other things) upon the initiation and conduct of a covert action—is that the United States government likely utilizes USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, and their “implementing partners” (in the words of the GAO report) as opaque, off-law facilitators of destabilization programs overseas, referred to as “democracy assistance programs” in USAID, NED, and GAO reports.

These programs—“democracy assistance programs” or otherwise—amount to illegal interventions under international law in the internal affairs of sovereign states around the world, while the cover-ups and violations of U.S. law greatly undermine the rule of law, transparency, and oversight here. If it weren’t so deeply implicated in the deception itself, the Congress should fully investigate the use of money, the private contractors, and the overseas activities of USAID and NED, and either enforce both U.S. law and international law with respect to their operations, or abolish the two agencies altogether.

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