State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf described the AP story as "breathlessly written" and containing "a number of misconceptions." Chief among them, Harf said: "there was nothing classified or covert about this program."
The Zunzuneo project in Cuba was undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID spokesperson Matt Herrick provided background on the program's objective.
"The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period. 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. USAID is a development agency and we work all over the world to help people exercise their universal rights and freedoms."
"We were not generating political content of any kind on this platform. We were letting the Cuban people do that themselves," Harf stated.
As further evidence of the unclassified nature of the program, the State Department pointed to the contracts for the project. The contracts were unclassified and the contractors were aware that the U.S. government was funding the program. "If you asked directly the contractors or the people who were aware that we were funding it if they were working for the United States Government," Harf said, "they would have said yes."
Harf emphasized that "Discreet does not equal covert," explaining, "In these kind of hostile environments, for the safety of the people working on these programs, indeed for them to be effective, we believe we must be discreet in doing so."
"It is also no secret," the USAID spokesperson noted, "that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground."
USAID stood by the Zunzuneo project. "All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls."
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