Ramon Espinosa / AP

Revealed: USAID ‘Cuban Twitter’ contractor given secret level clearance

Documents obtained by Al Jazeera show private firm knew work setting up social network for Cubans could be classified

A firm contracted by the U.S. government to help set up a Twitter-like network in Cuba held secret level security clearance and was warned the operation could involve classified work, according to documents seen by Al Jazeera. And documents show that the program was managed by a section of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) tasked with helping manage regime change in countries where U.S. interests are at stake.

Details contained in the terms of a $1.5 billion contract between USAID and Washington-based contractor Creative Associates International (CAI) and others outline the security clearance arrangements required by the U.S. government. Signed in 2008, the document had been obtained by researcher Jeremy Bigwood through a FOIA request, and shared with Al Jazeera. USAID said the document was for subsequent work put out to CAI and not the one relating to the funding of Twitter-like ZunZuneo. But Al Jazeera understands that the stated security level needed and the reference to the possibility of "classified" work is exactly the same as in the contract relating to controversial Cuba project.

Bigwood first reported on the contract in a report published Monday by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). The contract details could be seen to undermine official statements that the ZunZuneo program was “discreet” but “absolutely not” covert, according to testimony USAID administrator Rajiv Shah gave before Congress.

Matt Herrick, spokesman for USAID, told Al Jazeera on Monday that references in the contract to "secret" security level being required was standard.

"Requiring partner clearance is a safeguard required in many government contracts as part of a wide-ranging federal government program that ensures government contractors and their staff have the proper controls in place to safeguard government infrastructure and information."

Herrick added that in the case of ZunZuneo, no covert work was carried out.

The ZunZuneo program was managed by the agency's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). Founded in 1994, OTI focuses its work on times of “high politicization and instability,” according to the 2008 contract. Among its criteria for engagement are whether a country is important to U.S. national interests and whether there is a window of opportunity for a change in government.

“Even the best-intentioned assistance can be ineffective if the situation is not ripe for change. OTI cannot create a transition or impose democracy, but it can identify and support key individuals and groups who are committed to peaceful, participatory reform,” the contract reads.

“Task orders under this contract may involve classified performance,” it states. “At the time of award, the contractor does have a secret level facilities clearance.” The contract’s final page is a Department of Defense contract security classification specification.

“This is simply not a covert effort in any regard,” Shah testified during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on April 10.

He said of the program that “parts of it were done discreetly.” His statements supported those of White House press secretary Jay Carney, who told reporters, “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency.  Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong.”

Task orders under this contract may involve classified performance ... At the time of award, the contractor does have a secret level facilities clearance.

USAID contract

ZunZuneo project

A primitive text-message-based social media platform, ZunZuneo users did not know that the U.S. government created the program or that its contractors were gathering their personal data, according to reports by the Associated Press. The network was used by an estimated 68,000 Cubans from 2010 to 2012, when it ran out of funding, according to USAID.

At last week’s subcommittee hearing, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called the program “cockamamie,” adding that it had not been sufficiently explained to Congress. Leahy has been among lawmakers asking for a review of whether the program should have been classified as covert.

A report by the Government Accountability Office into the State Department and what USAID calls its democracy promotion programs found that the agency was adequately monitoring what its contractors were doing, but the report’s author, David Gootnick, said the report did not deal with whether the programs were covert.

“We did not ask, nor did we report on the wisdom of conducting such activities,” Gootnick added.

Bigwood has spent more than a decade trying through FOIA to obtain the names of other firms with USAID OTI contracts operating in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries.

“It is extremely difficult to get information about ‘transition’ programs from USAID,” Bigwood wrote. “USAID responded [to the FOIA request] by withholding the names of its grantee organizations. The case went to court in the D.C. circuit, and the judge rubber-stamped USAID’s decision to keep information secret.”

“There is little difference between CIA operational files and those of OTI: Neither can be obtained through the FOIA. That is not discreet, that is secret,” Bigwood added.

Creative Associates International told Al Jazeera that it was not authorized to talk about the program and referred all questions to USAID. USAID did not offer comment at the time of publication.

On the basis of a June 2006 report to then-President George W. Bush from Condoleezza Rice — also obtained through FOIA — it appears the early idea for ZunZuneo was part of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba II. The commission envisioned a “Cuban transition government” created largely by OTI, the report revealed. Part of the plan was to “expand use of third-country broadcasting into Cuba.”

ZunZuneo was run through a corporation that executives set up in Spain and through an operating company in the Cayman Islands so that money could not be traced back to the U.S. government, according to documents obtained by AP. USAID said Monday that no one affiliated with the program set up a Spanish company for the program.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government announced Wednesday that it is investigating how hundreds of thousands of its citizens’ cellphone numbers ended up in the hands of USAID contractors, AP reported.

The revelations about ZunZuneo could affect former USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba after he was caught smuggling sensitive communications devices into the country as part of another project. Last week he announced he was beginning a hunger strike in protest of his treatment by both the U.S. and Cuban governments. He later ended the protest at the behest of his elderly mother, his attorney said.

“While we debate what USAID is doing in Cuba, U.S. citizen Alan Gross remains in solitary confinement in his fifth year in captivity, solely because he was carrying out a USAID program which was dumb in its inception,” Leahy said.

Editor's note: This story was amended after publication following a clarification from USAID.

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