Saturday, March 28, 2015

USAID's delicate secrets

USAID regrets delay
In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a multimillion-dollar Cuba project called “Creating Networks and Empowering Communities," or CNECT.
Contractors hoping to run the program submitted proposals to USAID. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the proposals in March 2011.
Months later, USAID released a heavily redacted 33-page document that revealed little information about the project, not even the name of the winning contractor.
I appealed the ruling.
Now, four years later, USAID has denied my appeal.
Luis F. Garcia
In a March 18 letter, Luis F. Garcia, acting director for USAID's Office of Management Services, rejected my appeal and described public interest in the disclosure of such information as "minimal."
In my 2011 appeal, I wrote that USAID had refused to say who submitted the winning proposal even though the name of the contractor - Loyola University - was clearly visible in publicly available contract records.
Garcia said I failed to prove that. After reading his letter, it dawned on me: There was a second CNECT contract. And it doesn't show up in publicly available contract records.
USAID, as far as I can tell, is keeping the contractor's identity secret.
Garcia cited several reasons why the information was withheld. Documents, he said, were redacted to protect "confidential commercial information."
He said release of contractors' names could lead to the identity of employees working in Cuba and that could violate their right to privacy.
Garcia wrote:
...We balance the public's right to disclosure against the individual's right to privacy. Undoubtedly, individuals have an even stronger privacy interest in avoiding physical harm. Cuba is considered a "high risk" country. Individuals working there on behalf of the U.S. government could be subject to intimidation, harassment and or violence. For these reasons, the identity of the awardee - the employer of the person whose privacy rights were considered for disclosure - is protected pursuant to FOIA Exemption 6. The privacy interests of the individuals in the records you have requested outweigh any minimal public interest in disclosure of the information. records show that USAID awarded $2 million to Loyola University for a piece of the CNECT project in September 2010 (download record).
Screenshot from Loyola's CNECT record
I reviewed the request for applications and other information and see that the agency had planned to award two contracts, not just one. The contracts were to be worth up to a total of $6 million.
The USAID award number for the Loyola project was AID-OAA-A-10-00041.
I now realize that my FOIA was for a different CNECT contract, with an award number of AID-W-ooA-GRO-LMA-10-00061. I can't find anything in records for that contract. And that's why I didn't prove that the contractor's name was publicly available.
Here's how Garcia put it:
In response to claim two (2), you provided no weblinks or other location(s) where you assert this information is "publicly disseminated or (...) readily available" and therefore infer the proposal should be released. Without proof, we are unable to confirm public availability of this information.
...You did not provide evidence to substantiate your claim that the "...USAID withholds the name of the contractor even though the organization's name apparently appears on a government website called"
You indicate that the awardee's name apparently appears on the website. You do not demonstrate, however, that you, in fact, identified the name of the awardee in connection to the award number (USAID-W-ooA-GRO-LMA-10-00061) cited in your request. Accordingly, we maintain the awardee's name could subject its employees to physical harm and, when balanced against public interest, the physical safety of the employees is greater. 
After receiving Garcia's letter, I am more intrigued than ever about the project. USAID has disclosed the names of other contractors working in Cuba. Why keep this one secret?
From the mystery contractor's redacted proposal
I have only vague information about the project. The redacted winning proposal that USAID sent me in 2011 said the program was aimed at civil society groups, “especially those focused on promoting self-employment and entrepreneurial initiatives."
The project was designed to:
  • Build the technical, networking, and core administrative capacities of nascent on-island Civil Society Groups (CSGs), especially those focused on promoting self-employment and entrepreneurial initiatives, to increase their ability to provide information to their members, to network, and to identify and resolve issues of common concern.
  • Pilot the establishment of Savings and Credit Groups that target Cuba’s marginalized populations – especially those living in rural areas.
More from the proposal: Elaborate planning
The contractor said civil society partners in Cuba assisted:
a variety of Cubans with special attention to the poor, to Afro-Cubans, to women, and to other marginalized populations. They provide much-needed (redacted) and other basic services to the Cuban people, paving the way for independent development on the island not only in the future, but at the current time. The CSGs are truly the building blocks of civil society as Cuba moves into a new era.
USAID redacted the executive summary, the program summary, the objectives, the expected results, the implementation plan and more. The document said:
What has been described here is the plan, but this is a very delicate project. It is very likely that changes will be made along the way. (redacted), USAID, and (redacted) will all need to work together to adjust and change as conditions change and as we all learn more about implementing these types of programs.
"A very delicate project"
I wonder what two names were redacted in that last sentence. The contractor was probably one of them. What about the other? Who else was working with USAID?
The proposal also mentions the sending of “trainers” to Cuba, but does not provide an explanation.
In 2011, the agency told me in a letter that release of such information would compromise "all of USAID program's worldwide."
I appealed, writing:
The agency argues that greater transparency would harm its operations abroad.
I would argue the opposite: Secrecy is what hurts the agency, damaging its image around the world and raising suspicions about other less sensitive, but worthy USAID programs.
Running clandestine or semi-secret operations in a foreign country jeopardizes relationships with nations and organizations around the world. Such actions also draw attention to other USAID programs, hindering the ability of U.S. government employees and contractors to carry out their work abroad.
Clandestine programs undermine the public trust because they make it difficult or impossible to know if the government is spending tax dollars wisely.
Hiding information about these programs also hinders the ability of the public to understand how the government makes decisions and carries out its responsibilities.
Loyola received $4,598,379 from USAID from March 14, 2008, to Sept. 24, 2010, records show. That included:
  • $2 million for the CNECT program
  • $1.5 million for a Cuba program called "Yes We Can!"
  • $1,098,379 for "a comprehensive program to raise the performance of civil society" (the funds included included $100,000 in emergency hurricane relief aid awarded Sept. 19, 2008, after Hurricane Ike struck Cuba earlier that month.
Included in that last program was $498,379 awarded on Sept. 30, 2008, and described as "Incremental Funding to fully fund CA with Loyola."
USAID's top Cuba contractor in 2008 was Creative Associates International, based in Washington, D.C. Records show that the for-profit company has received at least $1.4 billion from the U.S. government, most of it from USAID, since 2000. Perhaps Creative Associates was Loyola's secret partner.
On Sept. 29, 2008, USAID awarded Creative Associates $6.5 million as part of a program aimed at accelerating Cuba's transition to democracy.
Nearly three and a half years ago - 1,259 days, to be exact - I sent USAID a FOIA request for information on Creative Associates programs in Cuba.
I haven't gotten an answer.
Garcia's letter said I'd have to sue in U.S. District Court if I wanted to pursue the matter further. He wrote:
This constitutes USAID's final decision in the matter.

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