Saturday, September 8, 2012

$5 million money trail ends at USAID

The U.S. Agency for International Development has refused to release details of a $5 million media initiative that targeted Cuba.
Freedom House ran the program, entitled "Alternative Methods to Increase Information and Assistance in Cuba," from December 2008 to December 2011.
In October 2011, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the secret three-year program.
Ten months later, USAID sent me a 32-page contract and 11 pages of contract modifications. The agency redacted the program description, program activities, budget information and names of personnel.
In a two-page letter, USAID said releasing names of personnel could put employees at risk, jeopardize their programs and hurt the agency's relationships with contractors.
It's peculiar that USAID seems so concerned with its relationships with contractors. Just consider what the agency tells people who run Cuba programs:
Given the nature of the Cuban regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID Program, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.
That disclaimer comes straight from USAID's contract with Freedom House, which ended on Dec. 22, 2011.
The message is clear: If you're caught and thrown in jail in Cuba, you are on your own.
USAID says it redacts names of personnel because releasing such details would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
But then, inexplicably, the agency does not withhold the names of two agreement officers who have dealt with Freedom House: Margarita Guerra and Carol Conragan, whose name has come up before (See "Breakdown: $31 million in Cuba-related USAID expenses").
It's also curious that USAID withholds the program description when the same information can be found in other public documents, a tactic that violates the spirit of the federal Open Records Act.
A March 2011 memo to Congress described the Freedom House program as follows:
These funds will focus on increasing access to information to Cuban civil society groups through new media initiatives that include technical assistance and training. The program will also provide training to build the capacity of Cubans to effectively and professionally document human rights abuse cases on the island. Funds will be used to increase dialogue between Cubans on the island and people from other countries who have positively influenced their governments through peaceful strategies and advocacy. In addition, funds will continue to build the capacity of civic and community leaders through the development of educational information toolkits, which include software and information on current affairs, human rights treaties, and other relevant, publicly available documents.
The memo listed the media initiative as a $1,699,394 program. Over three years, the amount totaled $4,999,394.

In the 32-page document, USAID censored a breakdown that would have shown how much Freedom House spent on:
  • Personnel
  • Fringe benefits
  • Travel and per diem
  • Subgrants
  • Supplies and equipment
  • Contractual consultants
  • ODCs, government lingo for 'other direct costs'
  • Indirect costs
USAID said the budget information was privileged and confidential.
Another curious detail in the Freedom House contract was the attention to legality. The contract reads:
Grantees and their sub-recipients may not send any equipment to Cuba without first meeting Commerce licensing requirements as set forth in the Export Administration matter who requests the equipment or how it is sent.
So USAID is a stickler, insisting that grant recipients obey every U.S. regulation, no matter how obscure. The fact that USAID programs are illegal in Cuba is not mentioned.
But, never fear, grant recipients don't have to advertise their USAID ties. The Freedom House contract reads:
Due to the political sensitivity of the USAID Cuba Program, USAID does not require any attribution to USAID or to the U.S. Government in any materials that will be distributed on the island.

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