Wednesday, April 9, 2014

USAID unleashes a whopper

The Agency for International Development was right to call out the Associated Press for purported inaccuracies in its investigative report about ZunZuneo.
USAID's "Eight Facts about ZunZuneo" questions key details in the AP story. The agency flatly denies, for instance, that a Spanish shell company was involved and that funds were earmarked for Pakistan to hide the money trail.
"Eight Facts" makes some convincing arguments and the AP ought to respond and set the record straight.
But one statement in "Eight Facts" struck me as a preposterous lie. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick wrote:
We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it. It makes our programs better.
I don't think USAID welcomes tough journalism at all. Other than acknowledging receipt, the agency hasn't even responded to a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests that I filed in 2011.
I asked for information about Cuba programs run by six organizations, including Creative Associates International, the contractor behind ZunZuneo; and DAI, the company that sent Alan Gross to Cuba.

The FOIAs I filed sought information linked to more than $30 million in Cuba programs. If USAID is so open to "tough journalism," why hasn't the agency responded?
Drawing from confidential Alan Gross memo
We wouldn't know nearly as much about DAI and Alan Gross if not for the Gross family's lawsuit against the contractor. (See "The secret files of Alan Gross"). And we wouldn't be debating the merits of ZunZuneo if not for the AP's investigative report.
When I filed the FOIAs in 2011, I was looking for information about not only DAI and Creative, but the Pan American Development Foundation, Plantados, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia and Cuba Online.
I wanted details of Cuba programs worth $30,706,050. (See partial breakdown). That included:
  • $7,520,708 for Grupo de Apoyo
  • $7 million for Creative
  • $6,857,817 for DAI
  • $6,616,188 for the Pan American Development Foundation;
  • $2,174,074 for Cuba Online;
  • $537,263 for Plantados.
Why not disclose more information about what those organizations were doing in Cuba? Is USAID worried taxpayers might learn about another offbeat plan to undermine the Cuban government? (See "Wild plot: Surfboards disguised as satellite dishes in Cuba").
ZunZuneo represents a tiny fraction of what USAID and the State Department have done in Cuba since the mid-1990s. There have been countless projects, even some with supposed links to the CIA (See "Agent: U.S. funds diverted," about a secret foundation called Genesis, aimed at cultivating Cuban leaders who would take charge after the socialist government's collapse).
With all due respect to USAID, "Eight Facts" is also a bit disingenuous. The statement tries to give the impression that there is extensive public disclosure and such projects as ZunZuneo should come as no surprise, saying:
The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.
Mike Masnick. Credit: Wired.com
Mike Masnick of TechDirt writes:
That may be true, but doesn't really answer the major questions about the program, and whether or not it was appropriate, or how it would appear when -- inevitably -- it was revealed as a US front.
"Eight Facts" continues:
In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.
USAID repeatedly points to the GAO report as evidence that the agency's Cuba programs are effective. But that's a half-truth.
The GAO report focused on "management and financial accounting as opposed to measuring impact and effectiveness in Cuba," wrote Phil Peters, creator of the Cuban Triangle blog.
Indeed, the GAO report was limited in scope. Among its goals were to:
  • Identify “the types and amounts of assistance that USAID and State have provided, as well as characteristics of their partners, subpartners, and program beneficiaries
  • Review “USAID’s and State’s efforts to implement the program in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations and to address program risks
  • Examine “USAID’s and State’s monitoring of the use of program funds.”
The report found that USAID had improved financial management, but it didn't explore operational issues.
The report said USAID had hired an outside contractor to review the Cuba programs and found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”
USAID wrote in a memo to GAO:
...we are proud of the continuous progress that USAID has achieved since your previous reports...
Financial oversight measures have led to the identification of $6.8 million in questioned costs. Of those amounts, $5.1 million in questioned costs have been adequately resolved; and $1.7 million in questioned cases are in the process of being resolved. Overall, there was approximately $50,000 in refunded amounts to USAID.
Secrets and more secrets
But there was no public accountability. USAID did not name names. It did not say what happened, if anything, to the contractors who submitted questionable expenses. Nor did it give any details about those charges.
Taxpayers are left to trust USAID, which steadfastly refuses to release details of its "discreet" programs in Cuba.
True, the agency paid millions of dollars to an outside auditor that examined its Cuba programs. But when I filed a FOIA request for information, I received only 10 heavily redacted pages that omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit. See "USAID audit cost taxpayers nearly $150,000 per page?"
USAID is about as transparent as mud.

Related:
Exclusive: USAID Scuttled American’s Release From Cuban Prison
US Penned Political Satire in Secret Cuban Twitter

3 comments:

Moses said...

In every standard-issue Hollywood cop drama, the storyline always seems to include the part where otherwise 'good' cops have to resort to less than 'legal' tactics to bring down the bad guys. The director wants his audience to forgive the good guys by justifying the lapse in ethics with the necessity to stop the bad guys before its too late. we see the same Hollywood strategy being played out in real life. The Castros are real-life bad guys. They are tyrannical dictators who have tortured and murdered to stay in power. The US, as good cop, has unfortunately had to resort to unsavory acts to begin to hold these bad actors in check. The real question should be how many of these lapses in legality or unsavory acts can take place before the good guys become undistinguishable from the bad guys. Only a free press, lacking in Cuba, can begin to ensure that the good guys don't go too far. Your investigations, even if resisted, are still necessary. There is no Freedom of Information Act in Cuba. Your Cuban counterparts, to the extent they exists, have no means to force the Castros to tell the truth. It is easy to begin to judge US actions and grow critical of these programs to destabilize the Castro regime. But you should keep in mind that in Cuba, there are no Senate hearings, no independent voices to cast light into the darkness. I hope you keep this in mind.

Tracey Eaton said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Moses. Your points are excellent and well taken.
I wonder what the United States would do if the tables were turned?
In Freedom House's 2013 rankings on press freedom, there were 22 countries ranked higher than the United States. What if one of those countries began spending millions of dollars to try to improve press freedom in the U.S.? It's a ridiculous scenario, I know. Norway and Sweden aren't about to interfere in our internal affairs. But the value of press coverage of such projects as ZunZuneo is that it prompts a conversation about U.S. policy toward Cuba and whether it could be made more effective.

Tracey Eaton said...

Here's a link to the Freedom House rankings:
http://www.freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press#.U0VpBa1dUyw