GWEN IFILL: What would happen if the U.S. government used social media to undermine a hostile foreign government? That may be exactly what the U.S. Agency for International Development tried to do in Cuba with ZunZuneo, a Twitter-style social media platform secretly controlled by the U.S. government.
An Associated Press investigation reveals that thousands of private Cuban cell phone numbers were used to circumvent tight controls on Internet communication and to gain valuable information about the users themselves.
USAID says that the program existed only to — quote — “create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period.”
Joining me now to talk about this operation is Jack Gillum, one of the reporters on the AP story.
Welcome, Jack. Good job.
Tell me, why would anybody, why would a government use Twitter in this way?
JACK GILLUM, The Associated Press: So, we use Twitter here in the United States in many different ways, you want to talk to friends, you want to share information.
But we also use text messaging. It’s a very basic function of our phones. Hey, let’s go meet in the park at 3:00 today. Let’s go hang out.
And — but, in Cuba, because of these tight controls on the Internet, it’s hard to really use Twitter in the way that we would like to use it. So they needed to use a sort of a bare-bones messaging system, in this case SMS text messages, to recreate what, essentially, is a Cuban version of Twitter.
And the idea was, is to get people involved, you know, get buy-in so people were — it was a system where they felt comfortable using, they could talk to each other, and grow it from there.
GWEN IFILL: Now, people who are not familiar with Twitter, this way, you could get followers, and you could get — you could reach a lot of people with a single text message. It wouldn’t just be like text messaging other individuals.
JACK GILLUM: Sure. So you would go, you would sign up, you would subscribe to different groups, so speak. And when you would send out a message, it would go through the servers, in this case sometimes to Ireland, to Spain, get sent back again, and then it would be distributed to the group.
GWEN IFILL: And it was fake down to the point of you had fake banner ads on these sites.
JACK GILLUM: Sure.
There was a very professional marketing campaign that went with this. I mean, when this USAID-funded project got off the ground in 2009, they sent out text tests — test text messages to say, is this something that we can do? Is this something that the Cuban government will approve of, or, rather, will they not notice and not get shut down?
By 2010, this ZunZuneo, project which is Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet, was — got off the ground, and it was something that they marketed, you know, just like any others, like Twitter or Facebook or any other type of social media platform.
GWEN IFILL: You say it was USAID-funded. That raises two questions. One is, how much did it cost? And the other is, why was the U.S. international development agency, humanitarian agency involved in this, and not, say, the CIA or a spy agency?
JACK GILLUM: Sure.
So it cost about — the government says now about $1.2 million. We think it maybe is more about $1.6 million, based on the money that they spent, the equipment they had to do, their payroll, that sort of a thing.
And the question to be asked here is, why USAID? I mean, they — the government says that they are proud through U.S. aid to do these democracy programs. And they’re proud of their work in Cuba. And I think that’s the question that members on the Hill might have, is, why is this work not being done through the CIA and the intelligence community?
GWEN IFILL: So it would be legal if it were considered democracy promotion, but illegal if it is considered covert intelligence?
JACK GILLUM: Sure. And that is the distinction that the White House today has tried to make. And they said, look, this is not a covert operation. A covert action is very specific under U.S. law.
It requires presidential finding of fact being notified to the intelligence communities. We described it as secret. They say it’s more discreet. Either way, you know, whatever thesaurus or synonym we use, the bottom line was that the people who used the service, the CEOs who were interviewed to run the service were never aware that it was backed by Uncle Sam.
GWEN IFILL: And in the documents that you got hold of, they took great pains to conceal the U.S. government involvement.
JACK GILLUM: They did.
So, you know, if we were to do this in the United States, we could, you know, set up a server down the street if we wanted to, pay them, have the messages get routed through there and back again. The problem was, is that, in order to maintain the credibility of this program, for two reasons — you don’t want the people who are using it to know that it is backed by Washington, because they would think it’s just, you know, some U.S. plot.
The Cuban government, you certainly can’t have them find out that it was a U.S. government-backed thing. And if you set up servers in the United States, it’s very easy to look at where those servers are based in a couple of seconds, so they had to set them up overseas, use a bank account in the Cayman Islands, and really make it have a look and feel of an overseas operation.
GWEN IFILL: Actually disguise the money trail.
JACK GILLUM: Right.
GWEN IFILL: Who was the target audience in all of this?
JACK GILLUM: So, the target audience were younger folks, people who had used — who, you know, would be using SMS texts to begin with.
And in order — and it was sort of like they sent out all these text messages, and they obtained about a half-a-million phone numbers, broadcast those messages out. And they wanted to see, what were the type of people who would respond back? They got about 40,000 at one point, and they collected this demographic information, you know, maybe no differently than other companies do.
And they were trying to put together these sort of demographic profiles, before, you know, it really took off and it ended in 2012, I think, before it may have grown bigger.
GWEN IFILL: Why did it end?
JACK GILLUM: So, there’s a couple reasons why.
We talked — when we asked the government about it and a couple people involved, they say simply the money stopped. This grant that it was under ended. But we also have spoken to people who used it and helped set it up. And they said, just like in Turkey, where they are trying to block Twitter through these DNS routings — and that is — DNS is like the phone book of the Internet. You type in an address, you get sent one place when you really want another.
They were sort of doing this monkeying around — that is, the Cuban authorities. And these engineers basically said, this is getting hard for me to do my job and keep up the system. So it could have been a little bit of both.
GWEN IFILL: That maybe they had gotten wind of it.
Since 2009, there has been an American citizen who has been held in Cuba, Alan Gross, who was also there as a contractor for USAID. Is there any connection between his situation and what we’re seeing unfold here?
JACK GILLUM: The only connection I think we see is chronological.
And that is that when Alan Gross is arrested in late 2009, this is as this was about ready to be publicly launched. It launched around January, February of 2010, so a few weeks after that.
Senator Patrick Leahy, who oversees the appropriations for USAID programs and State Department programs, was disturbed by this very fact, saying that, you know, we have an American contractor down there who is arrested. And now there’s — for doing technical work — and now we’re starting this project that he says could have put people at risk.
GWEN IFILL: This begs a question which you may not know the answer to, which is, if this was happening in Cuba, why wouldn’t it have been happening someplace else? Do we have any evidence to support that idea?
JACK GILLUM: So, when we tried to unspool these contracts — and it was a combination of both looking into internal documents and government documents and interviews with people — you know, even when we were able to dig down and get to very detailed contract numbers, and be able to punch those into federal databases to say, hey, how is your money spent, even then, when you plug that in, it looks like it went — you know, it was for a project in Pakistan.
So, you know, even in the sliver of information that is publicly available, there is no indication. So, you know, absent doing reporting or Freedom of Information requests, or a congressional oversight, it’s really hard to know, although AID says that they don’t conduct covert programs and what they do, it comports with U.S. law.
GWEN IFILL: I’m guessing there will be congressional oversight.
Jack Gillum of the Associated Press, great reporting. Thanks a lot.
JACK GILLUM: Thank you.