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Watchdog: Secret US ‘Cuban Twitter’ Programs Problematic

By on December 23, 2015

WASHINGTON — Once-secret U.S. government programs in Cuba that included a Twitter-like messaging service and an HIV-prevention workshop contained inadequate monitoring, conflicts of interest and questions of legal responsibility for those involved, according to an agency watchdog report this week.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversaw the now-defunct “Cuban Twitter” program and other efforts, also didn’t have a policy in place to protect sensitive work from subversion by Cuban intelligence officials, the report stated. ZunZuneo, as the text-messaging program was called, was among several of the agency’s Cuban civil-society programs designed to bring about democratic change.

The USAID inspector general’s report follows a months-long investigation by The Associated Press last year into concealed U.S. government work on the island. Those disclosures revealed how one of those companies — working under USAID’s supervision — developed ZunZuneo, staged an HIV-prevention workshop to recruit activists in Cuba and infiltrated the nation’s hip-hop community.

The report also faulted conflicts of interest, including how family members received grant awards. In one case, an operations manager for Creative Associates International — a Washington-based firm central to the efforts — looked to a family member’s technical company, Nimesa, for consulting.

“Government agencies are subject to public scrutiny,” the report stated. “As a government agency, USAID should not tolerate, much less approve, awards that constitute conflicts of interest. Such conflicts, which in ZunZuneo amounted to nepotism, increased the program’s vulnerability to fraud, waste and abuse.”

The programs run by Creative received sharp criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, who called them “reckless,” ”boneheaded” and “downright irresponsible.” The AP found Cuban artists swept up in the program were detained or interrogated by Cuban authorities, and a secret U.S. hip-hop operation backfired after Cuban authorities found that an independent music festival — one of the largest on the island — was really backed by the Obama administration.

The inspector general’s probe found some program documents were missing, including emails sent and received outside of government accounts or on a secure-messaging service called Hushmail. The report found officials also lost messages when USAID employees switched email providers, and the agency’s IT staff said “it would be time-consuming to retrieve them.”

“As a result,” the inspector general found, “we may be missing relevant communications.” The AP had previously obtained thousands of pages of documents, including some of those messages, as part of its investigation.

The report also found USAID shifted its approach in Cuba following the December 2009 arrest of agency contractor and U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was accused of bringing in illegal technology by the Cuban government. Gross was released from prison in December 2014.

USAID spokesman Ben Edwards said in a statement the agency has already completed several recommendations from the report, with the remaining to be finished by March 2016. The 89-page report contained 16 recommendations to improve accountability and prevent conflicts of interest.

By The Associated Press

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