The U.S. government devised a covert plan five years ago to start a Twitter-like messaging network in Cuba that would undercut the country's Communist government, The Associated Press reported.
The secret project, called "ZunZuneo" (slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet), launched in 2009 under the direction of Joe McSpedon, an employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the AP said.
USAID reportedly set up ZunZuneo using cellphone text messaging "to evade Cuba's strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet."
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The site initially launched with what was designated as "non-controversial content" to build users, and planned to then start disseminating information to encourage "smart mobs," or quick-gathering masses that would "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to a USAID document.
At one point, more than 40,000 Cubans were using the site without realizing it was a U.S. government site. It is unclear if the project was legal under U.S. law, the news agency said, noting that the president must authorize covert actions. It ended suddenly in 2012.
A spokesperson for USAID told the AP all of its Cuban programs had been looked at by congressional investigators.
"In the implementation, has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course," a representative said. "That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we're working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba."
That explanation didn’t soothe Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.
"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility," Leahy told the AP.
Reactions to the AP story printed by The Guardian showed mixed support
for U.S. actions. One of the least divisive was posted by user JanHolm: "Well, at least no one seems to have been killed in this CIA operation!"
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