By Sandy Marks
Shakespeare wrote: “What a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive…” Now, a little hummingbird sings the same song.
In April, AP broke the story of what seemed like another bureaucratic boondoggle of our federal government bureaucracy: a “twitter-like” social networking app for Cuban cell phones, called Zunzuneo after the Cuban word for the twittering of a hummingbird. Behind the venture was something called the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). The cell phone users were receiving information from, and were being monitored by, USAID.
On his blog, “The Cuban Triangle,” Phil Peters described how it worked:
“Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies. For example, subscribers were asked whether bands critical of the government should have been allowed to perform at the Juanes concert. The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting content, gradually introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”
Paula Cambronero, of Mobile Accord, used this data to create a database classified by gender, age, receptiveness and political tendencies. She told AP reporters that USAID told her they “needed” demographic information to “focus other programs in Cuba.”
According to USAID, the Zunzuneo app was used by about 68,000 Cubans from 2010 to 2012. Then the funding dried up. At least $1.6 million down the drain…
JUST ANOTHER SNAFU?
After the initial flap generated by AP’s coup, and a Congressional hearing at which Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) vented that he had never been informed, and that the project was “dumb, dumb, dumb” and a “cockamamie idea,” it appeared to be all over.
Another SNAFU, like the Obamacare website that no one could access. Another senator getting his air time… Some day some accountant in Washington would write a multi-page report detailing all the SNAFUs and, by that time, no one would care ― what with dozens more disasters having drained the Treasury in the interim. And what harm could come from a website with the name of a small bird, except to line the pockets of some “internet hamster” contract workers? It would be just another in a long string of federal government messes, like everything coming out of Washington, right?
Now, a Nicaraguan news source, Trinchera de la Noticia (“News from the Trenches” might be a good translation), shows there is more to this than a simple waste of taxpayers’ money. If it was just another boondoggle, why did the funding for Zunzuneo come from a corporation in Spain and an account in the Cayman Islands? Why did the memo from one of the project’s contractors, cited in the AP report, insist: “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement” and why were other parts of the operation located in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Chile?
The Cayman Islands account was under the name Mobile Accord, with links to Denver, while the company that created the site, Creative Associates International (CAI), was located in San Juan, Costa Rica.
For a bureaucratic boondoggle, this had more twists than a Robert Ludlum thriller.
When questioned by Senator Leahy at the April 8 Congressional hearing, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah could not explain “who came up with the covert idea,” saying only “I don’t know, specifically.” Shah also denied that Zunzuneo was covert. He said it was only “discreet.”
WHO AND WHERE IS McCARRY?
And then there’s Caleb McCarry, a former CIA agent and the principal consultant and Director of Communications for CAI. McCarry organized and directed Zunzuneo from 2008 until February 2013. Three months after joining CAI, the USAID gave him a contract about Cuba for $6.5 million. Yet, on the CAI website there is no mention of Zunzuneo, only a program in Pakistan, which officially received the funds. It was reporter Tracey Eaton who published the invoice for $1.6 million that showed these funds rerouted from Pakistan to Zunzuneo.
According to press in Costa Rica, McCarry’s office was inside the U.S. Embassy there, but in a hard to reach area with limited staff that barely had any relations with the rest of the embassy functions. In fact, most of the staff didn’t know what McCarry’s office actually did.
Sound Ludlumesque enough? Still, no information has been released about who did what with the money, or how much was spent on this cloak and dagger scheme. If $1.6 million actually was spent, was it really to cover up giving Cuban residents the joy of tweeting?
Apparently both McCarry and Nicaraguan hacker Mario Humberto Bernheim Echeverría, hired by CAI to create the cyber network, have disappeared since the scandal broke. It was Bernheim who, using a list of Cuban cell phone numbers acquired by Zunzuneo, sent half a million messages. According to the AP “About 100 thousand people responded without realizing that they were participating in a survey to gather intelligence.”
In 2005, McCarry was appointed as USAID’s Coordinator for the Transition in Cuba. With the advent of the Obama administration in 2009, the Transition in Cuba programs were incorporated into OTI.
THE ROLE OF OTI
Unlike any other government agency with the exception of the CIA, OTI personnel are required to be present throughout the entire money chain, to directly supervise how the money is spent.
OTI’s 2008 Award/Contract to Creative Associates, obtained by Jeremy Bigwood through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2009, reads like a contract for fomenting regime change. It states:
“OTI has a unique management style and can be described as an implementing or operational donor… The objective is to provide the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) with the means to support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners… in priority countries in crisis. OTI’s program team, comprising OTI and contractor personnel, will work on the ground to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key political transition and stabilization… In countries undergoing a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, violent conflict to peace, and other pivotal political events, OTI seizes these windows of opportunity and seeks to act as a catalyst for political change.” (Jeremy Bigwood, “Why USAID’s Cuban Twitter Program Was Secret”)
The Nicaraguan articles [“Caleb MaCarry (sic) Desapareció con Zunzuneo,” “Zunzuneo, Saga de la Guerra Fría y Remanantes de los Años 80,” “Así Nació el Twitter Cubano”] suggest that McCarry’s close connection with Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) helped foreclose any further congressional inquiry. McCarry was a staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is the son of a prominent Washington politician, Charles McCarry.
Nor is McCarry’s background limited to lawmaking and social networking. In 1989, he served as vice president of the Latin American program of the Center for Democracy, a non-government organization in Washington, D.C. that channeled resources to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which provided aid for the Nicaraguan “Contra” rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government, after Congress barred funding them directly.
Some U.S. media sources have also tied McCarry to the overthrow of Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
QUESTIONS HOVERING IN THE AIR
Six months later there are still a lot of questions hovering in the air concerning Zunzuneo ― and the web of deceit surrounding it.
What were OTI’s goals in implementing and operating Zunzuneo through CAI? What else did these offshore sources fund? Was Bernheim (a hacker better known for bringing down foreign servers) only tweeting about concerts? And what other “targeted activities” were the operation and McCarry connected to? What were the other programs USAID had to “focus” on ― perhaps a “Cuban Spring,” pre-planned and orchestrated by OTI?
American citizens deserve some answers about how our tax dollars are being spent, where and why.