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Posted at 1:52 p.m. on April 8, 2014
The senior senator charged with overseeing the U.S. Agency for International Development budget unleashed scathing criticism on the department’s leader Tuesday over a “Cuban Twitter” program.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the longtime chairman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, pressed USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah over the U.S-run social media platform in Cuba that was reported last week by The Associated Press. Leahy wanted to know who was behind creation of the program, but Shah did not have a specific answer, saying it came before he started running the agency at the end of 2009.
“Whose idea was it for this specific program? I’ve read the legislation. The legislation doesn’t say anything about setting up a cockamamie idea in Cuba with Twitter accounts and all on something that the Cubans would be so easy to discover,” Leahy said. “Whose idea was this specific program to go to Cuba, who? It’s a simple question.”
“Sir, the program was in place before I arrived,” Shah said.
Shah also criticized the AP’s reporting on the program, insisting it “had a number of critical inaccuracies,” and adding that it was not a covert operation.
In a blog post, USAID disputed the characterizations of the ZunZuneo platform, as it has been called.
“USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert,” the agency said. “The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings.”
Shah expanded on those points Tuesday morning.
“Working on creating platforms to improve communication in Cuba and in many other parts of the world is a core part of what USAID has done for some time and continues to do,” Shah said. “Our administration’s policy is to continue to support efforts to allow for open communications. To the extent that the AP story or any other comment creates the impression that this effort or any other goes beyond that for other ulterior purposes, that is simply inaccurate.”
Leahy connected the ZunZuneo debate with the detention of Alan Gross, who has been in the custody of the Cuban authorities since 2009, when he was arrested while working as a subcontractor for a USAID project.
“As far as I can tell, USAID and the Obama administration has all but forgotten about him,” Leahy said in his opening statement. “It’s long past time for the administration and the Cuban government to negotiate a resolution to this ordeal, so Mr. Gross can return home. Now, I’m told by the administration, ‘Well, if you only knew all the things we were doing.’ All I know is whatever they’re doing hasn’t accomplished one darn thing.”
Gross is currently reported to be on a hunger strike in protest of the continued detention.
Leahy said he has met with Gross on two occasions, and he called on the U.S. and Cuban governments to take more concrete action to try to get Gross home.
“There is a way to resolve it. There is ample precedent for doing so. It’s in our national interest, and it could be done immediately if, if the administration really wanted to,” Leahy said.