Saturday, January 26, 2013

The [redacted] USAID shell game

A U.S. government force with a reputation for speed and daring plans to spend as much as $2.5 billion over the next eight years to try to bring peace and democracy to trouble spots and flash points around the world.
The Office of Transition Initiatives, or OTI, has a long list of potential targets, including Cuba.
OTI, which is part of the Agency for International Development, or USAID, operates some programs openly, but disguises others so the American government role is not readily apparent.
During a meeting with contractors in June 2012, Stephen Lennon, chief of OTI’s Field Program Division, highlighted the group’s ability to cloak its activities while in Colombia from 2007 to 2011.
OTI was asked to go in and we did. And we didn’t go in as the U.S. government. In Colombia, nothing was branded. Nothing was branded USAID. It was all - that’s right, soccer balls from the Colombian government, Acción Social (a Colombian government agency). We had a couple of different brands.
What we did was create entities that looked, smelled, acted like they were the Colombian government and we worked very very closely with the Colombian government and the Colombian military to project their presence. (See 78-page transcript of the meeting).
Perceptions matter, Lennon told the group.
For example, OTI might support an activity with the local government to repair a school. OTI would measure its success based on how that activity improved attitudes and perception toward the government in that community rather than how the refurbished school impacts educational outcomes.
OTI was created in 1994 as "a small experimental office managing $10 million in program funds in two countries." Its annual budget has since grown to more than $56 million and it has spent some $2 billion in dozens of countries.
OTI operated in Cuba from September 2007 to September 2011, but public documents don’t give detailed or complete descriptions of its work or how much was spent.
Finding the money is like following the pea in a shell game.
USAID’s website in 2007 showed that the agency had set aside $8.63 million for an OTI program in Cuba described as “support youth-led independent media initiatives.”
Fleeting evidence of OTI's $8.63 million Cuba program
A Congressional Research Service report noted the $8.63 million in May 2009.
But by October 2009, USAID's website no longer listed the program. It had vanished.
So what happened to the $8.63 million?
Only traces of OTI’s Cuba spending appeared in the State Department’s Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations reports released in 2010 (page 74); 2011 (page 105) and 2012 (page 103). The amounts listed were:
  • $174,000, 2009
  • $198,000, 2010
  • $202,000, 2011
  • $125,000, 2012
That comes to $699,000 - nowhere near the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t $8.63 million.
So what happened to the rest of the money?
A July 2009 report to Congress dropped a few clues, revealing that OTI’s Cuba program had two parts.
  1. A pilot program aimed at boosting the flow of information on the island, expanding Internet access, developing networks and training activists. This contract went to Freedom House, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.
  2. A program to create "people-to-people" links between “non-traditional civil society actors” and “like-minded regional organizations.” Creative Associates International, a private contractor in Washington, D.C., ran this program.
From one of three audits:
Freedom House reported $563,931 in OTI money in January 2009
Let's start with part 1: We pick up the money trail by digging into federal audits that Freedom House is required to file.
In 2009 and 2010, Freedom House reported spending $1,460,541 on an OTI program called New Media Initiatives in Cuba (see audits).
In October 2011, I requested further information about the New Media Initiatives program under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
In response, USAID in May 2012 released a document showing that Freedom House had operated the $1.47 million Cuba project from September 2007 to June 2009.
Breakdown of spending is redacted
The agency redacted key details, including a cost breakdown showing how much was spent on:
Consultants, travel and transportation, subgrants, other direct costs, salaries and wages, fringe benefits, supplies, communications, printing, bank transfer fees, overhead.
Also blacked out were the names of personnel. USAID withheld the project proposal in its entirety, and heavily censored the program description. (See USAID's explanation).
The censored program description read:
Through New Media Initiatives for Cuba, Freedom House seeks to blend its recent successes in strengthening [redacted] for reform [redacted] created [redacted] Cuban audience. Recognizing the achievements of Cuba's [redacted] Freedom House identifies an opportunity for Cuba's [redacted] to proactively reach out to an information starved population with [redacted].
USAID: Redacted "R" Us
OTI’s agreement with Freedom House said the organization wasn't required to include its usual branding with material it distributed.
...due to the political sensitivity of the program, USAID will not require any attribution to USAID or to the U.S. Government in any materials that will be distributed on the island.
Moving on to part 2: Creative International's money trail is harder to follow because it is a for-profit company with fewer reporting requirements. The company isn't obliged, for instance, to submit reports to the Federal Audit Clearinghouse. And Creative's website doesn't say diddly about Cuba, although it does mention Costa Rica - more on that in a moment.

A required State Department notification to Congress in March 2011 contained some basic information about Creative's OTI contract, called “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society.”
The document stated:
Creative CEO Charito Kruvant
These funds will support OTI's existing contract, which seeks to reach out to new sectors of Cuban society to expand the network of independent actors working together toward positive, democratic change on the island. The program identifies emerging leaders and groups and creates "people-to-people" linkages between nontraditional civil society actors on the island and NGOs in the region.
Organized as a regional exchange program, these organizational linkages facilitate the
strengthening of grassroots participation, organization and networking designed to coalesce citizens to work together at the local level on issues of common interest and concern to average Cubans.
These funds will also be used to encourage initiatives and programming that support the development of economic rights, especially among marginalized populations such as women and Afro-Cubans. Such civic-based programs will have the added benefit of promoting individual economic initiatives, thereby reducing reliance on the state.
The document also listed $250,000 for oversight, but that certainly didn't mean public oversight.
In 2011 - 468 days ago - I filed a FOIA request with USAID for documents related to Creative’s programs in Cuba. USAID acknowledged the request, but has not provided any documents.
Records show the agency in 2008 gave Creative the first installment of what was to be a three-year $15,535,979 contract to carry out a sensitive OTI operation.
The mission involved establishing a secret base in Costa Rica that would support democracy activists in Cuba.
Raúl Castro
OTI had rushed to launch its Cuba program in 2007 because U.S. officials thought the country was on the verge of change. A program document stated:
With President Fidel Castro’s resignation after 49 years in power and the recent selection of Raul Castro as his successor, Cuba is, at the very least, undergoing a symbolic transition that might signal a broader democratic political transition in the near future...
From a political development perspective, the “debate critico” may be creating an important political opening for the people of Cuba and for USAID/OTI engagement. Nearly six years later, Raúl Castro remains in power.
Contract documents show that Creative eventually received around $11 million, falling $4,365,308 short of the $15.5 million contract amount.
Costa Rica
Records also show that the company shut down its Costa Rica office. Neither Creative nor USAID has ever explained why or acknowledged the existence of the operation.
OTI's work sometimes leads to "political entanglements," according to a May 2009 CRS report entitled, “USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives After 15 Years: Issues for Congress."
Marian Leonardo Lawson, a foreign aid specialist at CRS, wrote:
While OTI is subject to the same restrictions on political activities as other USAID programs, such as the prohibition on activities designed to influence election outcomes, its work often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications. This appears to be particularly true when OTI activities support pro-democracy groups opposed to the existing government. In such instances, critics sometimes accuse OTI of destabilizing rather than stabilizing civil society.
Evo Morales, left, with Hugo Chavez. Photo: Washington Post
Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have both accused USAID of meddling in their internal affairs. Lawson wrote:
Though the allegations may be unsupported, they exemplify possible risks: OTI programs can be problematic both because they raise concerns about the appropriateness of U.S. involvement in foreign politics, and because they make it easier for leaders such as Chavez and Morales to undermine popular support for opposition groups by labeling them as American agents. That OTI is not always forthcoming about its politically sensitive activities may have the unintended consequence of making all claims about U.S. ties to foreign organizations seem credible.
It’s unclear if OTI has pushed Cuba any closer to democracy. Its Cuba programs are largely hidden from public view, unaccountable to taxpayers and Congress.
USAID is more open about its work in such countries as Tunisia and Sri Lanka. The agency's website shows OTI activities, dollars spent and even program evaluations. But Cuba doesn't appear anywhere.
Now, OTI is again seeking out daring souls to carry out its operations in far-flung spots around the globe.
OTI expects to award as many as 14 contracts totaling as much as $2.5 billion under its new program, “Support Which Implements Fast Transition IV,” or SWIFT IV. (See OTI's 29-page pre-solicitation document).
Much of the money will likely go to established, politically connected contractors. Big names include Casals & Associates, AECOM, DynCorp International, Chemonics International, Creative Associates International, DAI, International Resources Group and dTS.
The contractors would carry out the projects over five years, then there would be a three-year period for follow-up work.
Some of the work may be classified. The OTI contract states:
Task orders under this contract may involve classified performance... In order to be considered for a classified task order, the contractor must obtain and maintain a "Facility Clearance" at the "Secret" level.
Some 176 countries - practically all but the most developed nations - are listed as potential targets of OTI programs.
When deciding where to establish programs, OTI considers four questions:
  • Is the country important to U.S. national interests?
  • Is there a window of opportunity?
  • Can OTI’s involvement significantly increase the chances of success?
  • Is the operating environment sufficiently stable?
FARC soldier. Photo: GlobalPost
OTI’s goal in Colombia was to help the Colombian government reestablish control over territories once dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which began fighting the government in 1964.
Projects included:
  • Scholarships for children of war veterans
  • Technical assistance to farmers
  • Health centers, roads and drainage systems
A USAID program evaluation stated:
The relative anonymity of the OTI programs made it possible for the GoC (government of Colombia) to be seen as a credible provider of services.
During the June meeting with contractors, Lennon said OTI carried out a counter insurgency program in Colombia.
I truly believe that OTI does the best counter insurgency work on the civilian side in U.S. government. And if you read counter insurgency doctrine, it’s 80 percent civilian. And we did it in Colombia.
OTI Director Rob Jenkins said his office has a "unique culture."
Rob Jenkins
It’s a culture of innovation. It’s a culture of challenging what you think is the truth. It’s a culture of learning.
We consider ourselves a learning organization before that phrase became something that everyone started using.
We’re a very small office trying to do very big things. Without partners, we cannot do anything.
Now what is it that we are implementing together? It’s simple: We try to change the world. That’s it. And we’ve attracted an amazing team of very motivated fantastic people.
Now you’ll see our mission statement... is to advance U.S. foreign policy. And we take that very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility.
Our unofficial mission statement that I use is that, OTI makes a critical difference in the most critical places at the most critical times. Our job is to assault the impossible to make it possible and then consider it achieved. Our job is to go into the darkest places and shed some light. Our job is to find places that need hope and provide it.

Note: This article was shared with the Center for Democracy in the Americas as part of a six-month collaborative project with non-profit group. See more about our collaboration here.


Moses said...

While I surmise that progressives and pro-Castro readers of this blog will express concerns about the US' uninvited intent to spread our form of democracy in foreign lands, my concern is the lack of transparency. After all, one criticism the US maintains against the Castro regime is the closed and secretive nature of their government. It seems hypocritical at best to obscure details about a program allegedly desired to open up Cuban operations. Still, if the larger issure is why should the US be in the business of democracy-building abroad. It's simple. To the extent we assist in promoting freedom in the world, we further assure these same freedoms here in the US.

alongthemalecon said...

Moses - You touch on two key questions: 1) should we intervene in Cuba's affairs, trying to build democracy; and 2) how should we do it. Opinions are divided on both questions.

alongthemalecon said...

I agree that the lack of transparency can be counterproductive. it also runs counter to broader trends in international development. there are increasing demands that foreign aid programs be transparent and accountable. USAID has followed that trend in many of its programs around the world, but not in the case of Cuba. Cuba is an exception.

Moses said...

Unlike USAID operations in other countries, activities in Cuba have largely been illegal based on Cuban laws. I expect the argument for redacting public documents related to Cuba to be based on protecting operatives currently carrying out assignments. Also, the use of USAID money in Cuba is probably a cover for activities that would otherwise be direct CIA operations but I may be getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would only add that I have every reason to believe that the Castros have likewise funded covert operations here in the US. Maybe they don't spend $40 million a year to spy on the US, but that's because they work a lot cheaper than we do:) Heck, we send spies to Israel and we are on the same side! It should shock no one that we would meddle in Cuba. Likewise, no one should naively think that Cuba is not doing the same thing. So why doesn't someone like Iroel Sanchez from Cuba do a little digging in Cuban intelligence and report in his blog on Cuban activities in the US. (Hahaha! I just wanted to make you smile!)

alongthemalecon said...

yeah, it only makes sense to protect aid recipients....
I do feel lucky to work in the U.S., where we have laws that support freedom of the press.

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