Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyNBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law When America denies citizenship to servicemembers Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship MORE (D-Vt.) on Wednesday questioned advice given to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonGreen candidate: Sanders should leave party that 'betrayed' him Clinton to call on Black Lives Matter at Dem convention Dems vote down push to abolish superdelegates MORE on the "Cuban Twitter" program funded while she led the State Department in 2009.
Leahy said he respected Clinton but blasted the now-defunct program, which was created in Cuba as an effort to undermine its communist government, and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is scheduled to testify before Congress next week, and Leahy said he would face pointed questions.
The agency helped fund the program that aimed to build a large subscriber base in Cuba on a platform similar to Twitter before introducing political content that could trigger revolution in the country, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to The Associated Press.
Subscribers in Cuba, however, never knew it was funded through the U.S. government and documents show the company behind it took pains to mask U.S. involvement.
The program ended in 2012, when the funds ran dry.
Leahy, who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the funding, said he was never briefed on the program. He said he would have balked at the idea if it was ever brought to his attention.
"I would have said what in heaven's name are you thinking? This is dumb, dumb, dumb," he said.
Leahy branded the program as covert, something the White House and USAID have pushed back on. The Vermont senator said he knows of no lawmaker who was briefed on the program.
"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," Leahy said. "They do a lot of great things around the world. I applaud a lot of things they do. I've visited different parts of some of the poorest parts of the world. Things that they are doing well. This is not one of them."
Leahy — who has blasted the U.S. embargo on the country as a policy “frozen in time” — said the program could have been a result of an outdated mindset in the State Department.
"We're the most powerful nation on earth,” he said. “Here's a little island nation just a few miles off our coast, and we treat it as though it's a great threat. We look foolish in the eyes of the rest of Latin America because of that. Instead of doing something like this, we ought to be doing the things to start improving ties between us and the Cuban people."
Some of Cuba’s biggest critics in Congress pushed back on Leahy’s claims.
“If you want to know exactly what [USAID is] doing they will tell you,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a top member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “If Sen. Leahy would like to know more about the program, he just needs to make an appointment with them.”
She said that the effort was “not a secret program” because the State Department openly publishes requests for proposals and bids for its upcoming projects.
“It’s very public.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) echoed her defense of the program.
“If we’re talking about a program to allow folks to be able to communicate via Twitter and things like that, I’m sorry but they’ve lost me,” Diaz-Balart told The Hill.
"The Cuban regime is one of the world's biggest enemies of Internet freedom,” added Rubio in a statement. “The U.S. should do everything we can to encourage the expansion of uncensored Internet access in Cuba."
This story was updated at 4:20 p.m.