The Associated Press reported Thursday that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment unrest in the country. According to the report, the program, named ZunZuneo after the sound of a hummingbird’s tweet, attempted to create a network similar to Twitter through which Cubans could send text messages to one another on quotidian topics such as the weather, soccer and news updates.

Upon reaching enough subscribers, ZunZuneo would become a catalyst for political change by trying to trigger flash mobs of Cubans and an eventual “Cuban Spring” where tens of thousands of citizens gather to demand more rights and for the overthrow of the Castro regime. Although the program did eventually reach 40,000 subscribers, Cubans were unaware of its affiliation with the United States.

ZunZuneo also had a surveillance dimension with Mobile Accord, a contractor for the project, storing and classifying cellular usage data according to age, gender, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.”

The debate now hinges on whether the program was considered a “covert” action. Under the law, any covert action requires president authorization and Congressional notification, yet the White House and USAID have denied the supposedly covert nature of the program. The U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, has emphasized the necessity of a “discreet” but not “covert” program in “non-permissive environments” to ensure the safety of individuals.

Carney also stressed the fact that the program was subject to congressional oversight and its role as a “development assistance” program to aid in the free flow of information to Cubans living in a setting where information and access to the Internet is heavily restricted.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah again stressed the discreet but not covert effort of the program and claimed that the Government Accountability Office investigated and cleared the programs as legal.

This latest revelation has come on the heels of damaging revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program which sparked indignation and mistrust between the U.S. and its allies.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Guardian, Associated Press, USAID
Photo: Tech Crunch