WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Thursday defended its creation of a Twitter-like Cuban communications network to undermine the communist government, declaring that the secret program was "invested and debated" by Congress and wasn't a covert operation that required White House approval.
But two senior Democrats on congressional intelligence and judiciary committees said they had known nothing about the effort, which one of them described as "dumb, dumb, dumb." A showdown with that senator's panel is expected next week, and a House oversight subcommittee's Republican chairman said it, too, would look into the program.
An Associated Press investigation found that the network was built with secret shell companies and financed through a foreign bank. The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba's stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform.
First, the network was to build a Cuban audience, mostly young people. Then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.
Yet its users were neither aware that it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that U.S. contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president as well as congressional notification.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he was unaware of White House individuals who had known about the program.
The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
USAID's top official, Rajiv Shah, is to testify Tuesday on the agency's budget before the Senate Appropriations' State Department and foreign operations subcommittee. Panel chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the senator who called the project "dumb, dumb, dumb" during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.
The administration said early Thursday that it had disclosed the initiative to Congress -- Mr. Carney said the program had been "debated in Congress" -- but hours later, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the administration had offered to discuss funding for it with congressional panels that approve federal programs and budgets.
Ms. Harf described the program as "discreet," but said it was in no way classified or covert. She also said the project, dubbed ZunZuneo, did not rise to a level that required the secretary of state to be notified. Neither former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton nor John Kerry, the office's current occupant, was aware of ZunZuneo, she said.
In his prior position as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Mr. Kerry had asked congressional investigators to examine whether U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba were operated according to U.S. laws, among other issues.
The resulting report, released by the Government Accountability Office in January 2013, does not examine whether the programs were covert, nor does it contend that any U.S. laws were broken. The GAO report does not specifically refer to ZunZuneo, but does note that USAID programs included "support for the development of independent social networking platforms."
Mr. Leahy and Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said they were unaware of ZunZuneo. "I know they said we were notified," Mr. Leahy said. "We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it. I'm going to ask two basic questions: Why weren't we specifically told about this, if you're asking us for money? And secondly, whose bright idea was this anyway?"
"That is not what USAID should be doing," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee. "USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished."
But other lawmakers voiced support for ZunZuneo, slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk to each other. "The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies," he said.
The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don't reveal where the funds were actually spent.