You know the old saying. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
When I wrote the other day that the Ukraine crisis is complicated by the Russian view that Western intelligence agencies used do-gooder Western agencies and non-profit non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to spin up demonstrations to destabilize and bring down Ukraine's democratically elected, Russia-friendly president, some were taken aback by its seeming paranoia.
But that is the Russian view, that mass protests suddenly spun up late last year after democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich turned down an association agreement with the European Union and, suspiciously, the painful fiscal reforms that would accompany major economic assistance. Demonstrating in favor of the end of fuel subsidies is not a common occurrence.
The Russian view is that the pro-EU demonstrations and subsequent coup were spun up by Western intelligence services working with non-governmental organizations, culminating in the overthrow of Yanukovich at the height of Russia's successful Sochi Winter Olympics. That's also the Russian view of Ukraine's Orange Revolution a decade ago, which resulted in the advent of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, whose scandal-plagued candidacy received only 5 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election against Yanukovich in 2010.
Now comes an explosive Associated Press report, "US Secretly Created 'Cuban Twitter' To Stir Unrest," on how the US Agency for International Development, officially an independent agency but one which works under the guidance of the State Department and the National Security Agency, worked to create new Cuban social media to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the long-running Communist government of Cuba.
"In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a midlevel USAID manager, 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. ... To hide the network from the Cuban government, [USAID officials and contractors] would set up a system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account. 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.
"The plan was to develop a bare-bones 'Cuban Twitter,' using 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."
US government operatives got hold of more than 500,000 Cuban cell phone accounts -- with numbers available immediately for text messaging, a key tool in the dramatic spectacles of mass demonstration-based/non-violent resistance-oriented "color revolutions" such as the unsuccessful 2009 one in Iran and the successful 2004 one in Ukraine -- from which they began the painstaking process of building a social media base.
"In a play on Twitter," explain the AP reporters, "it was called ZunZuneo [ZZ] -- slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet. Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through 'non-controversial content' such as soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later on, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize 'smart mobs' -- mass gatherings ... that might trigger a Cuban Spring (after the fashion of the Arab Spring).
"At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans ... 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. ... USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said: '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 ... Has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course.' ...
"Toward the middle of 2012, Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all. ZunZuneo vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. ... USAID says the program ended when the money ran out."
This, not to put too fine a point on it, is exactly what Putin and other Russian leaders are talking about. But it appears even more reckless than using NGOs, since using the Agency for International Development, which does much non-political good around the world, to carry out what is in essence "non-official cover" clandestine operations which are really the purview of an intelligence agency puts everything that AID does around the world under a suspicious light.
Longtime readers know I'm all in favor of strong and effective intelligence operations. But they have to be careful, they have to be smart, and they have to avoid feeding the perception that the US is an overbearing global threat.
The reality is that the ZZ program is just the kind of deception practiced by the US government that can lead to serious blowback against American interests and can undermine any progress being made on efforts to improve US-Cuba relations.
Of course Putin, a career KGB officer and the only spymaster head of government of a major world power, would know how this sort of thing is done.
KGB frequently manipulated elements of Western populations during the Cold War. Its successor agencies FSB -- which Putin directed before becoming prime minister under then President Boris Yeltsin (with the specific charge of crushing the Chechen rebellion, which he did) -- and SVR can do much the same if they choose today.
This is very alarming that we are using AID, a well-respected State Department-aligned program, for this purpose, tainting its respected development programs around the world.
And why is the Obama Administration trying to destabilize Cuba at this late date??
I hold no brief for the Cuban government and have turned down several opportunities to visit Cuba because they were sponsored by pro-Castro regime groups. But the days in which Cuba was trying to promote "the continental revolution," as the late Che Guevara had it, are long since past. Havana couldn't even guarantee ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden safe passage to his Latin American sanctuary when he was stranded in Moscow by the US air blockade against his travel.
Cuba is no threat to the United States and the logic of its situation is such that it will continue to moderate over time, allowing our two countries to eventually conduct normal relations. We should let events develop of their own accord instead of resurrecting tired Cold War spy games decades after the Cold War ended.