Last week, the John F. Kennedy Library marked the 53rd anniversary of what it called "a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba."
The invasion was a CIA covert operation with the goal of overthrowing the Castro government. President Kennedy was determined to conceal U.S. support for the invasion and, as the entry explains, the "landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception." But, the operation was exposed, American support was revealed, and the small army composed largely of Cuban exiles was defeated.
No wonder that ZunZuneo, the "Cuban Twitter" program created by USAID and revealed this month by the Associated Press, has been ridiculed in headlines as "The Bay of Tweets." Fifty-three years later, the United States is still trying to overthrow Cuba's government, and still misusing the dark arts of secrecy and deniability to obscure the facts; with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has risen to power ignorant of their country's history.
In the 1970s, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities was formed to review actions undertaken by the United States to overthrow foreign governments and spy on U.S. citizens, and to conceal what it had done from the Congress and the American people.
In its report, the Committee invoked the Bay of Pigs to illustrate the damage inflicted on our national security and our system by excessive reliance on secrecy:
The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values... Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process. This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts... (S)ecrecy has been a tragic conceit. Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America's reputation and the faith of her people in their government. -- Final Report, Page 16.
Following the report, Congress formalized the system of oversight for the intelligence community and strengthened the legal requirements obliging the White House and executive branch agencies to report intelligence activities and covert actions.
Fast forward from the Bay of Pigs and the Church Committee to ZunZuneo and you can see why some reporters are following the scandal closely and why experts like Professor Bill LeoGrande are challenging repeated official denials that the program was covert:
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.
In the early stages of the story, USAID flatly denied that ZunZuneo was intended to influence Cuba's politics. As the AP reported, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked administrator Rajiv Shah whether its goal was to "influence political conditions abroad" or "to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government," Shah replied "No, that is not correct."
Once AP published patently political text messages from ZunZuneo that contradicted Dr. Shah's testimony, the State Department started ducking questions at its daily briefing from reporters asking for an inventory of the text messages.
Indeed, on April 9, April 11, April 14 and April 17, when journalists asked "How goes the USAID review of these allegedly political text messages?," State Department spokespersons answered by saying "Nothing new to report today," "I would encourage you to check in with my colleagues at USAID," and, "I don't have any updates from here. I know they're looking into it."
Such evasions can't really work when the facts point so strongly to covert actions covered by the law. As Peter Kornbluh explained in an interview to Jeremy Bigwood:
Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.
The law, as Bill LeoGrande writes, "required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met."
And so, we have our Bay of Tweets: another covert action, another effort to conceal the truth from the American people, another deceit in our endless struggle to overthrow Cuba's government.
But, more than lies lie in the balance. As former Senator Gary Hart, a member of the Church Committee, observed a few years ago:
A democracy that violates the rights and privacy of its citizens and conceals its activities from them edges dangerously near something other than a democracy. The most radical of our founders, Thomas Jefferson, held that the best guarantor of the American republic was the good judgment and common sense of the American people, a people fully informed of the activities of its government on their behalf.