The White House says a so-called "Cuban Twitter" communications network created by the U.S. government was a development program, not a covert operation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney commented about the program Thursday, responding to a report by the Associated Press news agency. Carney said the program was completed in 2012.
Carney said the United States takes steps to be "discreet" when operating in "non-permissive environments" such as Cuba, in order to protect those involved in the program and the general public.
The AP report said the U.S. government secretly financed the social network in Cuba in an effort to stir political unrest and undermine the country's communist government. It said the USAID program evaded Cuba's Internet restrictions by creating a text messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. The program was dubbed "ZunZuneo," Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet.
USAID and the White House say the program was a legal development project, not a covert operation. USAID said the Government Accountability Office reviewed the program in 2013 and found it to be legal. Senator Pat Leahy, who chairs USAID's appropriations subcommittee, told AP there were troubling aspects to the program. He said thousands of Cubans used ZunZuneo without realizing it was a U.S. government project.
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.
The report says the project 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. Documents, however, 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.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says that neither U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry nor his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was aware of ZunZuneo.
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