|Rajiv Shah, left, and Patrick J. Leahy|
Leahy had pressed Shah.
"Who's idea was it?" he demanded during a budget hearing in Washington, D.C.
Shah tried to avoid the question and referred to his talking points.
Leahy cut him off repeatedly.
"It's a simple question," said the senator, raising his voice.
Finally, Shah said, "I do not, specifically."
Asked if ZunZuneo was a covert operation, Shah replied, "Absolutely not."
Shah said the project was included in the agency's congressional budget justification, which indicated USAID was pursuing programs to increase the free flow of information to Cuba using new digital methods.
Leahy said there was so much "bureaucratese" in the budget justification, it would be impossible for anyone to know that a program such as ZunZuneo existed.
Shah denied claims in an Associated Press investigation that claimed there was money set aside for a Pakistan program that diverted to Cuba instead. And he said there was no Spanish shell company involved, as the AP had reported.
He referred to the program as "discreet," not covert.
"We did not advertise that this was a U.S. program," he said.
Leahy also pressed Shah to tell him what he has done to try to secure the release of American development worker Alan Gross, who has been jailed in Cuba since December 2009.
"Have you done anything specifically, personally to get him home?"
Shah replied, "I have, sir."
"We think about him all the time. I think about Alan every day."
However, Shah said he could not talk publicly about what he's done. He added that the State Department, not USAID, has primary responsibility for trying to free Gross.