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Senate panel requests files on Twitter-like program for Cuba

US aid agency’s worldwide efforts under scrutiny

WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the US Agency for International Development on Thursday to turn over all records about the Obama administration’s secret Cuban Twitter-like program as part of a broader review of the agency’s civil-society efforts worldwide.

The request included copies of messages the US government or its contractors transmitted to subscribers in Cuba, who were never told about Washington’s role in the primitive, text message-based cellphone service that was meant to undermine Cuba’s communist government and was the subject of an Associated Press investigation last week.

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‘‘I’d like to get a full sense of all your democracy programs, beyond the Internet, as well, because we’re going to judge all of those in context,’’ committee chairman Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, told USAID administrator Rajiv Shah during a hearing. Menendez, who said he supported the Cuban network known as ZunZuneo, said he may ask for separate reviews by other auditing agencies, including inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office.

He said he will advocate that prodemocracy programs continue to be run by the agency.

Menendez made the surprise request after Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, separately asked for data about the program under the auspices of Congress’s oversight responsibilities. ‘‘Will we have access to all the tweets or the messages that were sent by USAID or its contractors in full so we can judge here?’’ Flake asked. ‘‘Because we have to provide oversight, whether we authorize programs or fund them.’’

The USAID administrator told Flake that the agency doesn’t have most of them but promised to turn over any documents it can obtain from contractors. ‘‘You’ll have access to what we are able to gather,’’ Shah said.

Menendez, who made the request without a committee vote, said the review will consider whether USAID’s prodemocracy programs in Cuba were consistent with those run in other foreign countries, and whether USAID should operate what it has since acknowledged was a ‘‘discreet’’ program. The agency’s full name is United States Agency for International Development.

The Associated Press investigation revealed that the US government took great care to keep its role hidden in the now-defunct ZunZuneo, which was publicly launched in 2010, using foreign bank transactions and computer networks. The Associated Press also revealed that draft messages produced were overtly political, despite earlier US government statements that the service had a more neutral purpose.

In four congressional hearings over three consecutive days, lawmakers have debated whether USAID, best known for its humanitarian mission, should be running such a cloak-and-dagger mission instead of government spy agencies like the CIA.

Based on internal documents and interviews, the Associated Press reported that Cuban subscribers were neither aware it was created by the US government nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, strongly defended ZunZuneo as a platform Cubans could use to communicate with each other amid government-imposed Internet restrictions. Rubio said he wants to restart the operation, which ended in 2012, although he acknowledged that USAID was perhaps not the appropriate federal agency to do so.

‘‘Maybe USAID is not the perfect agency for this,’’ Rubio said.

Rubio asked the USAID administrator, ‘‘This wasn’t an intelligence program. We weren’t spying on the Cuban government, were we?’’

Shah replied, ‘‘No.’’

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