Aid agency rules would ban risky undercover work
BY DESMOND BUTLER AND JACK GILLUM ASSOCIATED PRESS
11/10/2014 9:09 PM 11/10/2014 9:09 PM
The U.S. global development agency is preparing internal rules that
would effectively end risky undercover work in hostile countries, such
as the once-secret “Cuban Twitter” program it orchestrated, The
Associated Press has learned.
The new policy follows an AP investigation this year into work by the
U.S. Agency for International Development, which established a
Twitter-like social network in Cuba and secretly sought to recruit a new
generation of dissidents there while hiding ties to the U.S. government.
The AP found USAID and its contractor concealed their involvement in the
Cuban programs, setting up a front company, routing money through Cayman
Islands bank transactions and fashioning elaborate cover stories. That
subterfuge put at risk the agency’s cooperation with foreign governments
to deliver aid to the world’s poor; last month, it pledged more than
$140 million to fight Ebola in West Africa.
USAID’s proposed policy closely mirrors a Senate bill this summer,
according to government officials familiar with the discussions who were
not authorized to talk about the matter publicly. That bill would
prohibit USAID from spending money on democracy programs in countries
that reject the agency’s assistance, where staff wasn’t directly hired
and where USAID would have to go to “excessive lengths to protect
program beneficiaries and participants.”
The officials said USAID’s high-risk democracy efforts would likely be
moved under the aegis of another arm of the State Department and the
National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group that receives money
from the U.S. government. Such a change would have effectively made it
impossible for USAID to run programs such as the “Cuban Twitter”
project, known as ZunZuneo.
In a statement late Sunday, USAID said it would continue to carry out
democracy programs in “politically restrictive environments” and aim to
be transparent. But it said the new rules would balance safety and
security risks, which aligns with proposed legislation that would stop
USAID’s democracy work in hostile countries that outright reject the
agency’s help and where USAID’s role had to be minimized. The statement
said that the rules have not been finalized.
“We will also examine risks that might constrain effective
implementation of the projects or undermine the safety of our partners,
such as programmatic, legal, financial, physical and digital
security-related risks,” it said.
The officials said USAID acknowledged changing its democracy-promotion
policy after being questioned by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jeff
Flake, R-Ariz., who wrote the agency following the AP’s report in April.
Leahy called the program “cockamamie” in a subcommittee hearing.
Both ZunZuneo and a second program to recruit Cuban dissidents were part
of a larger, multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to effect change in
politically volatile countries. But the officials said they were told
USAID had concluded some democracy programs in hostile countries were
“Civil society organizations, and dissidents in countries with
repressive governments where human rights are denied, deserve our
support,” said Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on foreign
appropriations, in a statement Monday. “But USAID is a development
agency, and its programs should be open and transparent, not covert.
Nothing illustrates this more tragically than the continued imprisonment
of Alan Gross in Cuba.”
It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign democracy-building programs.
Nevertheless, one USAID contract for a Cuban project was signed days
after Gross, an American contractor, was arrested in December 2009 for
smuggling sensitive technology into the country. Cuba’s highest court
denied his appeal, and he remains imprisoned there.
The AP reported that ZunZuneo evaded Cuba’s Internet restrictions by
creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize
political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who
were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government. U.S. officials said
it ended in late 2012 because funding ran out.
In August, the AP found the agency secretly dispatched young Latin
Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic initiatives to
provoke political change. That program sent Latin youth — often posing
as tourists — around the island for as low as $5.41 an hour to scout for
people they could turn into political activists.
Shortly after the AP revealed the existence of the social media project
in April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked USAID to turn
over all records about the program as part of a broader review of the
agency’s civil-society efforts. The agency’s inspector general confirmed
this summer it was examining the ZunZuneo program.
The USAID programs were also launched around the time newly inaugurated
President Barack Obama talked about a “new beginning” with Cuba after
decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had
a coherent policy toward the island nation.
Source: Aid agency rules would ban risky undercover work | The Miami