Thursday, April 3, 2014

USAID’s adventures in covert action, the latest chapter

This is quite a piece of reporting by Desmond Butler and colleagues at the Associated Press. 

It’s worth absorbing because it shows a little-known aspect of U.S. policy toward Cuba and a little-known aspect of USAID’s work, which is covert action plain and simple.

The essential facts are that USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message.  The U.S. government’s involvement was hidden “to ensure the success of the Mission.”  (En silencio ha tenido que ser, as they say.)  Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies.  For example, subscribers were asked whether bands critical of the government should have been allowed to perform at the Juanes concert.  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.

Here’s what a USAID spokesman told the AP: “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world.  In the implementation, has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments?  Of course.  That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public.  In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground.  This is not unique to Cuba.”

In other words, the Obama Administration’s position today is that USAID programs like this are hunky-dory.  It amazes me that USAID is employed in this manner, that it doesn’t see it as a threat to its good, overt work in many countries.  Others can sort that out, I’ll concentrate on Cuba.

The ZunZuneo program’s activities began and ended during the Obama Administration, but I wonder if the program’s origin was in the Bush Administration, which increased funding for Cuba political programs and started seeking proposals for technology components in 2006.  This request for proposals is the first I know that focused on technology to deliver information and to strengthen political opposition in Cuba.

The AP story quotes a USAID document that mapped Cuba’s political terrain and labeled the “democratic movement” – i.e. the dissidents on which USAID spends millions – as “still (largely) irrelevant.”  Harsh, but true, and we should keep this from Senators Menendez and Rubio.  (To digress a moment, this is not the first time that the U.S. government reached this conclusion.  Almost exactly 54 years ago, this State Department memo argued that there was “no effective political opposition” and the “only foreseeable means of alienating internal support” was to “weaken the economic life of Cuba” and eventually “to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.”)

So with the dissidents leading nowhere in USAID’s view, ZunZuneo was a tool to generate effective political activism. 

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.

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 discredits genuine political opposition in Cuba, of which there is plenty, of all shades, in many places, including inside the system itself where many of Cuba’s most interesting and certainly most consequential debates are raging today.  Some of this debate is, believe it or not, encouraged by the government.  But when the government wants to set a limit, it invokes national security and warns that the United States is trying to “fabricate a political opposition.”  If the DGSE hasn’t thanked USAID, it should do so now.

It’s easy to find Cubans unhappy with their government.  It’s hard to find one that wants to be treated unwittingly as an object by ours.  They deserve better, and since this is apparently the best we can do after eight years of Bush and six of Obama, maybe they deserve to be left alone by the U.S. government.

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