WASHINGTON (AP) - In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba's communist government.
McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company's ties to the U.S. government.
McSpedon didn't work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones "Cuban Twitter," using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba's strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo - slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.
Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through "non-controversial content": news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize "smart mobs" - mass gatherings called at a moment's notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes.
"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project's contractors. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."
The program's legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. McSpedon, the most senior official named in the documents obtained by the AP, is a mid-level manager who declined to comment.
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said the agency is proud of its Cuba programs and noted that congressional investigators reviewed them last year and found them to be consistent with U.S. law.
"USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world," he said.
"In the implementation," he added, "has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we're working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba."
But the ZunZuneo program muddies those claims, a sensitive issue for its mission to promote democracy and deliver aid to the world's poor and vulnerable - which requires the trust of foreign governments.
"On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee.
"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested."
The Associated Press obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project's development. The AP independently verified the project's scope and details in the documents - such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates - through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those directly involved in ZunZuneo.
Taken together, they tell the story of how agents of the U.S. government, working in deep secrecy, became tech entrepreneurs - in Cuba. And it all began with a half a million cellphone numbers obtained from a communist government.
ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from the Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.
It is unclear whether the plan got its start with USAID or Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., for-profit company that has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts. But a "key contact" at Cubacel, the state-owned cellphone provider, slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer living in Spain. The engineer provided the numbers to USAID and Creative Associates "free of charge," documents show.
In mid-2009, Noy Villalobos, a manager with Creative Associates who had worked with USAID in the 1990s on a program to eradicate drug crops, started an IM chat with her little brother in Nicaragua, according to a Creative Associates email that captured the conversation. Mario Bernheim, in his mid-20s, was an up-and-coming techie who had made a name for himself as a computer whiz.
"This is very confidential of course," Villalobos cautioned her brother. But what could you do if you had all the cellphone numbers of a particular country? Could you send bulk text messages without the government knowing?
"Can you encrypt it or something?" she texted.