When Is Covert Action Not Covert? When It's 'Discreet.' USAID's Indiscreet Twitter Program in Cuba

Ever since the Associated Press revealed that USAID created a short-lived, free text message app for Cuban cell-phone users called ZunZuneo, Obama administration officials have been indignantly denying that the program was covert.

"Discreet does not equal covert," agency spokesman Matt Herrick wrote on the USAID website, defending the operation. "The [Cuba] programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings." In a testy hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on foreign operations, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah argued that because ZunZuneo was being discussed in an open forum, it was not covert.

USAID officials need to review the statutory definition of covert action. In 1991, Congress tightened that definition in reaction to the Reagan administration's claims that its Iran-contra operation was not a covert action under the law and therefore did not require a presidential finding or Congressional notification. The relevant passage of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 (50 U.S. Code § 3093) reads:

(e) "Covert action" defined
As used in this subchapter, the term "covert action" means an activity or 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....

The record is indisputable that the U.S. government's role in ZunZuneo was kept secret (not classified Secret, just kept secret) from the Cuban government, Cuban users of the service, some of the subcontractors working on the project, relevant members of U.S. Congress, and the U.S. public. That certainly sounds like an operation that fits the definition of covert action pretty snugly. The claim that ZunZuneo was not covert, just "discreet," doesn't pass the duck test.

There is no category of "discreet" actions that the intelligence law excludes from the requirements of intelligence oversight even though they fit the statutory definition of covert action.

Nor does the fact that USAID publicly acknowledges it has a program to promote democracy on the island exempt specific operations from oversight if they fit the definition of covert action. The Reagan administration publicly requested funds to support the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, but the contra program was still subject to intelligence oversight.

USAID initially denied that ZunZuneo was intended to influence Cuban politics and claimed that nothing political was ever tweeted out to Cuban subscribers. In the Senate hearing, USAID Director Shah insisted that ZunZuneo was intended solely "to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other," not to influence Cuban politics or foment unrest. But based on program documents and interviews with program participants, the Associated Press has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that these claims of innocence are simply false.

In summary, USAID's ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government's role was intentionally hidden. Therefore, under the law (50 U.S. Code § 3093 (a)), it required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met.

Why is an agency committed to social and economic development running covert operations in the first place? USAID officials don't have the requisite tradecraft to run them successfully (as Alan Gross, the victim of another "discreet" USAID operation, can testify). Apparently, they don't understand the relevant oversight laws, either. If the Obama administration really wants to make it possible for Cubans to communicate with one another via social media, the president could relax the embargo, allowing Cuba to expand its internet bandwidth by hooking up to one of the undersea fiber optic cables that crisscross the Caribbean, but bypass Cuba. He could allow U.S. social media firms to do business in Cuba. He could lift the remaining restrictions on travel to Cuba so more Cubans and Americans could friend each other. And once and for all, he and Congress could zero out appropriations for the hair-brained schemes that have characterized USAID's Cuba program since its inception.

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