An Associated Press report says the U.S. government secretly financed a social network in Cuba in an effort to stir political unrest and undermine the country's communist government.
The program evaded Cuba's Internet restrictions by creating a so-called "Cuban Twitter" text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations.
The network reportedly drew in tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government. The Associated Press says the USAID project lasted more than two years.
The AP report says the project was created with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks.
The report says it is unclear whether the project was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. The Associated Press says officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it.
The Cuban government declined an AP request for comment.
The AP says details uncovered by its reporters appear to contradict the U.S. Agency for International Development's longstanding claims it does not conduct covert actions. The report says the project could undermine the agency's mission to deliver aid to the world's poor and vulnerable, an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.
USAID earlier released a statement to AP saying the agency is "proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people," whom it said "have lived under an authoritarian regime'' for 50 years. The agency said its work was found to be "consistent with U.S. law.''
USAID retracted that statement Thursday and said the White House will comment later in the day.
The report says the project, dubbed ``ZunZuneo,'' slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.
The AP says it obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project's development, and independently verified the project's scope and details in the documents through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved in ZunZuneo.