WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government created a service similar to Twitter in Cuba in a "discreet" operation intended to promote democracy on the communist-ruled island, officials said on Thursday, but denied that the $1.2 million effort was aimed at fomenting unrest.
The program, whose existence was first reported by the Associated Press, was run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which normally delivers aid to the world's poor, and was discontinued in 2012, officials said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the program was neither "secret" nor "covert" under the U.S. government's definitions of those terms. "Discreet does not equal covert," Harf told a news briefing.
Harf said this "democracy promotion" program created a platform "similar to Twitter" and was carried out under a three-year grant totaling $1.2 million and was created using subcontractors and foreign banks.
"We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content," Harf said, although she added that the initial communications made over the network on subjects like sports and the weather were made by the U.S.-funded contractors.
"So this is solely for the purpose of creating a platform for Cubans to express themselves, which has long been the policy of the United States, the United States Congress, and many other people in this country," Harf said.
The AP report said the program was designed to get around Cuba's strict Internet prohibitions using secret shell companies financed through foreign banks. The AP report said USAID was careful to hide U.S. ties to the project and used companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to conceal the money trail.
The two-year project drew 40,000 users who did not know the communications network was devised by a U.S. agency and designed to push them toward political dissent and also did not know their personal information was being gathered, the AP reported.
Harf said "the notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest, that we were trying to advance a specific political agenda or points of view - nothing could be further from the truth." Harf declined to say the program "accomplished a lot."
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was "absolutely not" aware of the program. "If I had been, I would have said, 'What in heaven's name are you thinking?' This is dumb, dumb, dumb."
"This is not something that was declared to us. If you're going to do a covert operation like this for regime change - assuming it ever makes any sense - it's not something that should be done through USAID. They do a lot of great things around the world," Leahy told MSNBC.
Harf said that "we submitted a congressional notification in 2008 outlining what we were doing in Cuba" and "we also offered to brief" the appropriate lawmakers about it.
Asked about Leahy's comments, Harf said, "I can't speak to why he knows certain things or doesn't know certain things."
Harf said documents involving the contracting companies handling the program were unclassified and that the contractors would not have denied working for the U.S. government if asked. She added that "a bank overseas does not equal covert action."
Harf said "discretion" was needed about the U.S. government's funding of the program "so the Cuban government won't shut it down, they won't clamp down on average Cubans trying to talk to one another on this."
The communications network was called "ZunZuneo," Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet. The project was reviewed in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and found to be consistent with U.S. law, USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said.
"The purpose of the ZunZuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," Herrick said in a statement. "At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that."
"Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course, the government has taken steps to be discreet. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. This is not unique to Cuba."
ZunZuneo began shortly after Cuba's arrest of American contractor Alan Gross, 63, in Cuba in December 2009, the AP said. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive.
Writing by Will Dunham and Doina Chiacu; Editing by David Gregorio, Bernard Orr