The White House on Thursday denied that the United States government’s creation of a “Cuban Twitter” program was covert.
“It was not a covert program. It was debated in Congress. It was reviewed by the [Government Accountability Office]. Those sorts of things do not happen to covert programs,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
On Thursday morning, The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration secretly created a communications network in Cuba in an effort to undermine its communist government.
The report said the program was publicly launched in 2009, and was nicknamed ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet.
During more than a two-year period, the program attracted at least 40,000 subscribers, most of whom were young people in Cuba, the report said. It was intended to build an audience, and then turn them toward dissent.
Its followers, however, were unaware of who was behind the program, the AP found after it reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents and interviewed people who worked on the program.
The AP said it was unclear if the program was legal because a covert program would have to be authorized by the president.
“Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong,” Carney said. “You're discreet about how you implement it so you can protect the practitioners, but that does not make it covert.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the project after one of its employees, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba after traveling there multiple times for a secret mission to expand Internet access.
Carney confirmed the program ended in 2012, as the AP reported, and said it was a development program that was debated in Congress and whose appropriations are public.
AP reported an estimated $1.6 million was spent on the program, but it said the funds were publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan.
Carney said officials "of course" have to be discreet when the government implements programs in “non-permissive environments.”
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Thursday that the program was “not covert” and said the AP’s story had “a number of significant inaccuracies.”
A GAO report from 2013, he said, examined the agency’s project in Cuba and said it was consistent with the law.
“Not all of what was reported was true,” Shah said.