UPDATE 3-U.S. created Twitter-like service in Cuba, denies fomenting unrest
(Adds State Department briefing)
WASHINGTON, April 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. government created a service similar to Twitter in Cuba in a "discreet" operation intended to promote democracy on the communist-ruled island, officials said on Thursday, but denied that the $1.2 million effort was aimed at fomenting unrest.
The program, whose existence was first reported by the Associated Press, was run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which normally delivers aid to the world's poor, and was discontinued in 2012, officials said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the program was neither "secret" nor "covert" under the U.S. government's definitions of those terms. "Discreet does not equal covert," Harf told a news briefing.
Harf said this "democracy promotion" program created a platform "similar to Twitter" and was carried out under a three-year grant totaling $1.2 million and was created using subcontractors and foreign banks.
"We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content," Harf said, although she added that the initial communications made over the network on subjects like sports and the weather were made by the U.S.-funded contractors.
"So this is solely for the purpose of creating a platform for Cubans to express themselves, which has long been the policy of the United States, the United States Congress, and many other people in this country," Harf said.
The AP report said the program was designed to get around Cuba's strict Internet prohibitions using secret shell companies financed through foreign banks. The AP report said USAID was careful to hide U.S. ties to the project and used companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to conceal the money trail.
The two-year project drew 40,000 users who did not know the communications network was devised by a U.S. agency and designed to push them toward political dissent and also did not know their personal information was being gathered, the AP reported. Continuación...