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The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, was on Capitol Hill today. Rajiv Shah was there to discuss his agency's $20 billion budget request. But lawmakers were more interested in a program that ran out of money two years ago. It was a secretly funded text messaging service similar to Twitter used by tens of thousands of Cubans. Critics accuse USAID of using the social networking site as a tool to destabilize that country's communist regime. And one of the harshest critics: the chairman of the committee Shah sat before today. NPR's David Welna has the story.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has been fuming about a program he says he knew nothing about ever since the Associated Press reported last week that USAID covertly set up a Twitter-like service in Cuba and ran it for nearly four years. Leahy chairs the appropriations panel that funds USAID and he had sharp questions for Shah, the agency's administrator.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Whose idea was this?
RAJIV SHAH: The program was designed in 2007 and 2008, at that timeframe. That said, the legislation that crafts the purpose of the program...
LEAHY: No. Whose idea was it for this specific program? I've read the legislation. The legislation doesn't say anything about setting up cockamamie idea in Cuba with Twitter accounts and all on something that the Cubans would be so easy to discover. Whose idea was this specific program to go to Cuba? Who? It's a simple question.
SHAH: Sir, the program was in place before I arrived.
WELNA: Shah took over at USAID four years ago. He acknowledged that the 68,000 Cubans who used the Twitter-like program known as ZunZuneo never were told who was behind it. Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns told Shah he could not imagine why USAID should even be involved in such a program.
SENATOR MIKE JOHANNS: To me, it seems crazy. It just seems crazy that you would be in the middle of that. That's just my observation.
WELNA: And Leahy pointed out to Shah that USAID is now seen as engaging in secret activities with political aims.
LEAHY: Doesn't that taint all USAID employees around the world as spies? I mean, we're already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world, current and past, saying, how could they do this and put us in such danger?
SHAH: Sir, we support civil society.
WELNA: One sad result of that policy, Leahy noted, is the 15-year prison sentence that a USAID contractor is serving in Cuba after being arrested more than four years ago while trying to set up an online network for Jews in Havana.
LEAHY: U.S. citizen Alan Gross remains in solitary confinement in his fifth year capacity solely because he was carrying out a USAID program which was dumb in its inception.
WELNA: Among those attending the hearing was Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba expert with the nongovernmental National Security Archive. He says the foreign aid agency started in the Kennedy administration seems to be going back to its old ways.
PETER KORNBLUH: In the 1960s, USAID was used as a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, it appears to be a compliment or supplement to those types of covert operations.
WELNA: Still, some in Congress applaud USAID's efforts in Cuba. New Jersey's Bob Menendez is the Cuban-American chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
SENATOR BOB MENENDEZ: At the end of the day, just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental element of any democracy program that we would be promoting.
WELNA: No one, though, has proposed reviving the program in Cuba. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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