Friday, April 4, 2014

ZunZuneo and other "discreet" adventures (revised)

ZunZuneo's Facebook page had recorded 293 "likes" when I checked it yesterday.
Since then, that number has soared, despite the fact that the so-called "Cuban Twitter" is now defunct.
To be sure, ZunZuneo has plenty of supporters. Boosting the free flow of information in Cuba is a noble goal. I'd never argue with that.
What some people are debating is  how the U.S. Agency for International Development managed the project and whether the U.S. government should interfere with Cuba's internal affairs.
USAID hired a private, for-profit company called Creative Associates International to oversee ZunZuneo, according to an April 3 report by the Associated Press. The story said:
The money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show.
A Denver company called Mobile Accord assisted Creative Associates. On Thursday, I found Mobile Accord's contracts for work in Pakistan and jumped to the conclusion that they were connected to ZunZuneo. Earlier today, I suggested that federal officials might have written "any old BS" in contract records to hide the Cuba connection. I was wrong. A Mobile Accord spokesman told me today that there were two separate contracts. He said:
We can confirm that the Pakistan and Cuba projects were entirely separate.
Only Mobile Accord's Pakistan agreement appears in the Federal Procurement Data System, FPDS. If anyone has details on the contract related to Cuba, please let me know and I'll post the information here.

According to the FPDS website, Mobile Accord's contracts with the State Department include:
  • A Sept. 18, 2009, agreement for "Short Message Service support to be provided to displaced people in the northwest frontier of Pakistan." Amount: $969,000.
  • A Sept. 8, 2011, agreement described as - and I'm not making this up - "New possibility of doing polling by phone very rapidly." The State Department's embassy in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is listed as the contracting office. Amount: $6,500.
  • A July 8, 2010, agreement to provide "TAS::19 0113 000::TAS" in Pakistan. I don't know what TAS that means. I'd like to think it's something sexy like "tactical air support," but it's probably "task objective statement" or some stunning example of bureaucratese. Amount: $720,000.
Screenshot from Mobile Accord website
Here's where Mobile Accord said it operated
As for Creative Associates, I've been wondering for several years what exactly the Washington, D.C., company does in Cuba. Creative received a $6.5 million contract to carry out a Cuba democracy project not long after hiring Caleb McCarry, who was the Cuba Transition Coordinator under former President George W. Bush.
Creative CEO Charito Kruvant. Credit: Vimeo
On Oct. 10, 2011, I sent three Freedom of Information requests to the U.S. Agency for International Development try to learn more about Creative's work in Cuba.
More than 900 days later, USAID still hasn't responded, other than to acknowledge that it received my requests.
Nor has USAID answered 16 FOIAs I sent in 2011 asking for information about work that the Pan American Development Foundation has carried out in Cuba. (See Cuba Money Project for details on the FOIAs).
The agency hasn't provided any information about DAI, either. That's the company that sent American Alan Gross to Cuba. The public likely wouldn't know details about that case if not for Gross's jailing in Cuba and subsequent lawsuit against DAI. (See the "Secret Files of Alan Gross," "Secrecy, politics at heart of Cuba project," and "Alan Gross and his descent into hell").
USAID paid Creative Associates $11 million for its Cuba work. The company operated from a secret base in Costa Rica. (See "$11 million for clandestine work in Costa Rica?").
Creative was supposed to get a total of $15 million, but the money dried up after the U.S. government shut down the operation.
American officials have never acknowledged the operation or explained what happened.
Jay Carney. Credit: Associated Press
I guess they're just being "discreet." That's how White House spokesman Jay Carney described ZunZuneo. He said:
This was an effort, one of a variety of efforts that the United States engages in, as part of its development mission, to promote the flow of free information, to promote the engagement by citizens of countries, especially societies that are non-permissive, because we believe that is part of the essential right of every individual on Earth.
Marie Harf. Credit: Twitter
Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, told the New York Times:
There was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert. Having worked for almost six years at the CIA and now here, I know the difference.
Harf told the Times that anyone calling ZunZuneo a covert program did not understand covert programs.
I don't understand covert programs. I have learned to read the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines discreet as:
  1. having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech
  2. unpretentious, modest
  3. unobtrusive, unnoticeable
  • "He was very discreet, only saying what was necessary."
  • "With a discreet gesture, she signaled to her husband that she was ready to leave the party."
The dictionary defines covert as:
  1. not openly shown, engaged in, or avowed : veiled a covert alliance.
  • "He has taken part in a number of covert military operations."
  • "Spy agencies taking covert action."
Phil Peters
Phil Peters, a former State Department official and creator of the Cuban Triangle blog, described ZunZuneo as "covert action" under U.S. law. He wrote:
The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

These were, in other words, “activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” That is “covert action” as defined in U.S. law (National Security Act of 1947). 
Now I am not against covert action in principle, nor are most governments regardless of what they say. But it’s a little rich for USAID to be engaging in covert action and refusing to admit it, much less participating in the controls and oversight mechanisms that Congress and the Executive have for that purpose. 
USAID isn’t very competent at acting like a junior CIA and running covert operations in Cuba. Its operations tend to be found out. Indeed, the Cuban intelligence service tends to see them coming, as shown in this 2011 video
But more important than that is USAID’s political malfeasance. 
Alan Gross
Just as Alan Gross has cast suspicion on Americans who assist religious institutions in Cuba on their own, unpaid by U.S. government contracts, this program casts suspicion on people who have no U.S. government connection and try to help Cubans gain access to information. Cuban citizens, not to mention the Cuban intelligence service, will reasonably suspect that there’s a hidden U.S. government hand in an offer of information or access to technology – or that the offer is really bait for a future attempt to bring them into a political program. 
USAID’s program was disrespectful to Cubans. It is patronizing of USAID to refer to Cuban citizens as “partners” when they don’t know that they are dealing with the U.S. government. Our government should not be operating under false pretenses with Cubans, as it did through Alan Gross and now through ZunZuneo. And the U.S. government has no business luring Cuban citizens into a social media operation to gather information on their political views without their consent. It’s hard for the U.S. government to say that Cubans need to find their own way and “determine their own future” when it is trying not to assist, but actually to generate political activity.
USAID's Matt Herrick said in a statement:
Matt Herrick
It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people. All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls. 
It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground. The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period. At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that. USAID is a development agency and we work all over the world to help people exercise their universal rights and freedoms.
Mobile Accord said:
We’re a mobile services company who facilitates open communications to power social good. We provided a platform for Cuban people to connect with one another. The program ran its course and was defunded, but it was well-loved by users and we’re very proud of the network we built for Cubans to share information about their daily lives.
The Cuban government today called on an end to "illegal and covert actions against Cuba."
The information contained in the article published by the U.S. news agency AP confirms the repeated denunciations made by the government of Cuba. It is once again demonstrated that the government of the United States has not given up on its subversive plans against Cuba, which seek to create destabilizing situations in the country in order to provoke changes in our political order, to which the government of the United States continues to dedicate budgets of millions of dollars every year. 
The government of the United States must respect International Law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and it must, therefore, cease on its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and the international public opinion.
ZunZuneo is not the only "discreet" project that the U.S. government has launched in Cuba. Others are likely underway.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, has spent millions of dollars to develop a messaging network in Cuba.
Contract records show that the BBG has paid Washington Software Inc., of Germantown, Md., more than $3.2 million since 2011. Payments have gone for:
  • Expanding Internet proxy servers
  • Developing a Short Message Service, or SMS, social network
  • Preventing Cuban government jamming of its electronic messages
  • Sending text messages to Cuba via SMS
  • Programming computers
  • Designing and operating an SMS system
  • Sending email blasts
(For more information, see "Agency takes new strategy toward Cuba," "Text-messaging campaign targets Cuba," and "Firm also has e-mail blasting deal").
In 2013, the BBG paid $60,000 to Mobile Accord, the Denver company that helped run ZunZuneo.
That included $40,000 for a mobile phone survey and $20,000 for "OPR/R for additional projects," contract records show.
OPR could mean "operational project requirements," according to the Acronym Finder.
The BBG's contracts don't say whether Mobile Accord's contracts are related to Cuba.
In 2012, USAID gave the New America Foundation a $4.3 million contract in 2012. (See "New America Foundation gets Cuba grant"). The Open Technology Institute is part of the foundation. It created an open source tool called Commotion, which can be used to create a mesh network.
Mesh networks were originally designed for military applications and allows activists to operate independent of the central authorities’ communication infrastructure. (For more on that, see "Cuba likely target for mesh network").
The battle for Cuba is far from over.


Antonio said...

This is like the Bay of Pigs of twitter!

Antonio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.