Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cuba: Update--Alan Gross, 64, Began Hunger Strike on 4/8/14, as USAID Incompetence Flagged, Sen. Leahy Describes Project as "Dumb"

COMMENT: I have emphasized for several years that eventually a "shoe would drop" in the case of US Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, 64, who, at the time was employed by institutional contractor, Development Alternatives, Inc., to generate a social media network in Communist Cuba built to stir up unrest in the communist island, on behalf of USAID.


According to THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID)  Rajiv Shah, 41.

Interestingly, incumbent USAID Administrator Shah is rumored to be the next US Ambassador to India:  

It should also be noted that Mr. Shah is USAID's SIXTEENTH administrator since 2009.

That amounts to a change in the Office of the USAID administrator' every 3.25 months! Outrageous! 

Shah is beginning a series of appearances before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, asking questions about USAID's secret "Cuban Twitter," a social media network built to stir unrest on the communist island.

First up in the questioning of administrator Rajiv Shah is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who publicly called the social media program "dumb, dumb, dumb."

Last week, an AP investigation revealed that USAID oversaw the creation of the text message-based service, dubbed "ZunZuneo" for the sound made by a Cuban hummingbird. 

USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP.
A key question for the hearings will be whether the program endangered its users by concealing that the US government was behind the program. 

The network was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross, 64. He was imprisoned there after traveling repeatedly on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Cuban Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

Early Tuesday (April 8), Gross' lawyer released a statement that his client was going on a hunger strike. The ZunZuneo story was "one of the factors" Gross took into account in connection with his hunger strike, the attorney said.

Inasmuch as Alan Gross' health is not good to begin with, and has not been since his arrest in Havana in 2009, Mr. Gross' plight no doubt was conceived to send a strong message Washington, even at risk of dying in prison to underline USAID incompetence.

It should also be emphasized that Alan Gross is in prison in Cuba simply because no single USAID administrator was in place no longer than three months as Senator Leahy so eloquently describes as "dumb, dumb, dumb."  

"Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba," said the lawyer, Scott Gilbert. "USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another."

Lawmakers will also try to determine whether the program should have been classified as "covert" under US national security law, which requires covert action to be authorized by the President and briefed to Congressional intelligence committees.

Shah said last week that the ZunZuneo program was not covert, though "parts of it were done discreetly" to protect the people involved. He said on MSNBC that a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) into democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the US State Department, including the Cuban Twitter project, found the programs to be consistent with the law.

Mr. Shah, if he had any ethical fiber whatsoever, should resign his position as USAID administrator, even though it might result in his loss of an ambassadorship, simply to underline support for Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba because USAID never should have asked Gross to go to Cuba for such  a misconceived project paid for by US taxpayers.

Yet, the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, told the AP this week that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert. They surely should have done so.

"We did not ask, nor did we report, on the wisdom of conducting such activities," Gootnick said. 

Senator Leahy, who oversees the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that authorizes spending for USAID and the State Department, said he was not aware of the Cuban Twitter project while it was in operation.

"If I had been, I would have said, 'What in heaven's name are you thinking?" he said on MSNBC last week. "If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID."

In addition to Senator Leahy's committee, Shah is expected to appear before a Republican-chaired House Appropriations subcommittee, as well as the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees. 

Last week, the Republican chairman of a House oversight panel said it would be looking into the project.

USAID also said that several CEO candidates for the network's company were told explicitly that the US Government was involved. 

Documents revealed that the creators of ZunZuneo wanted to keep the origins of the service secret from CEO candidates. The AP contacted two of the candidates, both of whom said they'd interviewed for the job with no idea of the Federal government's role in it.