The Cable

Menendez Slams ‘Dumb' Criticisms of Obama's Secret Social Media Program in Cuba

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday tore into critics of a controversial U.S.-backed social media program in Cuba. The program, created by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run with the help of American contractors, established a Twitter-like social media site on the Communist island called ZunZuneo but was shuttered after two years with little to show for it.

"Our work in Cuba is no different than our efforts to promote freedom of expression and uncensored access to information in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Iran, China or North Korea," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He said it was "dumb, dumb and even dumber" to suggest that Cuban people "don't deserve the same freedom" as other people around the world.

The remarks follow a volley of bipartisan criticisms of the program after its exposure in an Associated Press story last week. The news agency discovered that the Obama administration sought to undermine the Cuban government by providing an online platform for political dissent. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who Menendez was clearly responding to, called the Cuba Twitter project "dumb, dumb, dumb" last week.

The fear is that USAID's secret efforts in Cuba could jeopardize its global humanitarian aid work to the poor, which relies on the trust of foreign nations. But Menendez didn't waver. "Just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental responsibility of any democracy program," he said.

Menendez, a longtime Cuba hawk, has supported a range of U.S. programs to garner influence on the island, including Aero Marti, a Spanish-language TV and radio program that spent more than $24 million beaming broadcasts onto the island from an airplane. That plane program was  eventually grounded after many years of operation when it was revealed that the Cuban government jammed the signal of the plane, rendering its efforts largely useless.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, who testified before the committee on Thursday, disputed claims that the program was covert, saying "parts of it were done discreetly." He also said the program was similar to other democracy-building projects around the world. 

Still, lawmakers questioned why other U.S. government agencies like the State Department or CIA couldn't have handled the program. "What are we doing to our USAID programs around the world when they hear that there are covert or discreet programs like this?" asked Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Shah conceded that there's an ongoing "policy debate" over whether the program was worthwhile, but assured the committee that its implementation was consistent with the appropriations language that governs the agency's program.

The committee asked for USAID to hand over all of its records about the program and similar programs also run by the agency. Shah promised to report back to the committee in a timely manner.

The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Hints Russia and Its Allies Rigged Crimea's Secession Vote

Last month, a staggering 96.77 percent of Crimea's voters reportedly chose to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, sending what Moscow described as an unequivocal signal that the region wanted nothing to do with its erstwhile leaders in Kiev.*

But supporters of secession weren't willing to take any chances, flooding the airwaves with scare-mongering propaganda and violently repressing virtually any show of dissent, according to the findings of a confidential U.N. draft report on the human rights situation throughout Ukraine in the run-up to the vote. A final version of the report is expected to be presented to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, April 15, and then subsequently made public. It comes amid growing concerns in Washington and other Western capitals that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may be preparing to invade eastern Ukraine as well.

The U.N. report represents the first independent assessment of the human rights situation in Ukraine since a bloody crackdown on pro-Europe protesters plunged the country into turmoil, leading to the ouster in February of the country's former President Viktor Yanukovych, the unrest in Crimea, and Russia's subsequent invasion and annexation of Crimea. The report notes that Ukrainian political life has long been afflicted by endemic corruption and a "culture of effective impunity" that subjected Ukrainians to the whims of  security forces that systematically violated their human rights. But it focused most sharply on the political upheaval that followed Yanukovych's decision in November not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, a decision that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Kiev and Ukraine's other major cities.

Ten days before the March 16 referendum, Ukrainian television broadcasts were "shut off" in Crimea, replaced by Russian TV channels supporting secession, according to the report. (Ukrainian authorities retaliated by blocking Russian broadcasts in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.) Bloggers, activists and other critics of secession were threatened, detained, and tortured. A delegation of human rights monitors, meanwhile,  "received many reports of vote rigging," according to the report.

"The delegation met with sources who claimed that there had been alleged cases of non-Ukrainian citizens participating in the referendum as well as individuals voting numerous times in different locations," according to the 38-page draft report, written by Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights. "Preliminary findings, based on publicly available information as well as reports from civil society representatives in Crimea, suggest that the referendum on March 16 raised a number of concerns in terms of respect for human rights."

Last month, Simonovic made two trips to Ukraine, conducting fact-finding missions to Kiev, Kharkiv, Lviv, and the Crimean cities of Sevastapol and Simferopol. Initially refused entry into Crimea by local authorities, Simonovic was ultimately allowed into the separatist peninsula. The objective of the mission, according to the report, was to provide "impartial reporting" that can "trigger accountability for human rights violations" and prevent the "manipulation of information, which serves to create a climate of and insecurity."

On the eve of Crimea's referendum, Ukraine emerged as a propaganda battlefield, with Russia's state-owned broadcasters beaming news reports with exaggerated portrayals of violent demonstrations in Kiev, ginning up fears that Ukrainian nationalists were preparing a wave of violent anti-Russian attacks. At the same time, extremist nationalists that served on the front lines of the Ukrainian protest movement threatened violence against Ukrainian broadcasters that they accused of failing to promote a sufficiently patriotic view of events. "As a result, people both in Russia and Ukraine, and notably in Crimea, are victims of propaganda and misinformation," according to the report.

The report skates delicately around allegations of Russia's role in stage-managing the Crimean crisis, stopping short of directly assigning Moscow blame for orchestrating the secessionist campaign. But it sprinkles the report with circumstantial evidence of Moscow's influence, citing reports of Russian military presence in Crimea and of "a significant raise of propaganda on the Russian television" in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

There is little evidence in the report to suggest that Crimea's Russian-speaking majority would have voted any differently if conditions were less threatening to dissidents. But Simonovic's findings underscore the heavy-handed efforts used to influence the outcome of the referendum, as well as the personal risks faced by those making the case for remaining part of Ukraine.

Crimea's March 16 referendum was marred by "credible allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and torture targeting activists and journalists who did not support the referendum," according to the draft.  Some activists were hauled into a military compound called the Military Drafting Center in Simferopol. On March 9, the report said, Andrei Schekun and Anatoli Kovalski were allegedly kidnapped and later released with signs of "ill treatment or torture." Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar who was reportedly abducted by uniformed men, was found dead on the day of the referendum "with alleged signs of torture, hand-cuffed and with adhesive tape over his mouth," according to Simonovic.

"The presence of paramilitary and so called self-defense groups as well as soldiers in uniform with insignia, widely believed to be from the Russian Federation, was not conducive to an environment in which voters could freely exercise their right to hold opinions and the right to freedom of expression," according to the draft's executive summary.

The report challenged the Russian Federation's contention that ethnic Russians in Crimea had been threatened or mistreated, saying that "it is widely assessed that Russian speakers have not been subject to threats in Crimea." On the contrary, Russian and Crimean authorities have contributed a climate of "uncertainty" for Crimean Tatars by announcing plans to resettle Tatars who have illegally occupied land while the await restitution for property seized during the mass deportation of the Tatars by the Soviet Union. "The overall climate of uncertainty has led some people, predominantly Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians to leave Crimea," the report stated.

While there was "no evidence of harassment or attacks on ethnic Russians ahead of the referendum," Russian broadcasters ran "greatly exaggerated stories" and misinformation suggesting that nationalist Ukrainian extremists were heading to Crimea to persecute ethnic Russians. Such scare tactics were "systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity," according to the draft report.

"In eastern Ukraine, where a large ethnic Russian minority resides, the situation remains particularly tense with ethnic Russians fearing that the central government does not represent their interests," Simonovic said. "Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread."

The report provides sufficient material to bolster claims by the United States and other Western powers that Russia has exaggerated the extent to which Russian speakers have been threatened in Crimea. "The report clearly refutes the entire justification for Russian activities on Crimea and beyond," said one Western diplomat who had seen the report. "We have always been saying that the Russian narrative of a 'preventative responsibility to protect' is a sham. Now we also have certainly from the U.N. that there were no widespread, systematic violations of the rights of Russian speakers on Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine."

But the report also provides evidence to support Russian claims that extremist Ukrainian nationalists pose a threat to the country's stability. Simonovic is sharply critical of the Ukrainian security forces that initially participated in the crackdown on pro-Europe protesters, as well as hardline elements in the protest coalition that have stirred up Ukraine's nationalist ghosts.

The emergence of hardline nationalists and pro-Russian extremists has contributed to a dangerous rift between the country's Ukrainian and Russian speakers and radicalized the political landscape from Kiev to the Crimean capitol of Sevastapol, according to the draft.

Simonovic said that "tensions have decreased, along with allegations of human rights violations," since a transitional government took power. But he faulted Ukraine's ruling parliamentary coalition for promoting a motion on Feb. 23 to repeal a law that makes Russian an official language. (The motion was never signed by Ukraine's transitional president.) He also raised concern about a potential purge of Ukrainian officials that worked closely with the Yanukovych administration, once served in the KGB, or held government position in the former Soviet Union or Communist Party.

Simonovic also expressed concern that the upcoming May 25 presidential election in Ukraine could be marred by a surge of anti-Russian fervor. "The advocacy of national, racial or religious hated that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and nationalistic rhetoric witnessed during the Maidan protests may have an adverse impact on the situation in Ukraine."

The report provides no answer to one of the most lingering human rights questions from the crisis: the identity of the snipers responsible for opening fire during the February 18-20 clashes with demonstrators attending the so-called Maidan protests.  The violence left 121 people dead, including 101 pro-Europe protesters and 11 policemen. Hundreds more were hospitalized, including some who remain in critical condition, while as many as 150 have disappeared.

Simonovic claimed security forces from Ukraine's Berkut riot police tortured and beat protesters, forcing one demonstrator to strip naked in the freezing snow as one officer filmed him on his cell phone. "The new minister of Health Mr. Oleg Musii, indicated ... that he saw law enforcement officers removing the bodies of individuals who are still unaccounted for," Simonovic wrote. "He noted the snipers were aiming to kill (targeting the head and vital organs of the victims) and also depicted case of police brutality, including beatings of medical staff and preventing medical personnel from attending to the wounded," according to the report.

But Simonovic also cited concerns about hardline members of the protest coalition. Among those is the rising influence of right-wing extremists groups, who served on the "front lines" of the Maidan protest movement. November's bloody crackdown on "largely peaceful" protesters by Yanukovych's security forces, especially the Berkut special police, "led to a significant radicalization" of the protest movement.

Some hardline Ukrainian nationalists forced regional governors to sign resignation letters. Alexander Muzyehko, a member of the radical Right Sector, "filmed himself intimidating and physically assaulting" a government prosecutor. In one widely publicized incident in March, a representative of the right wing Ukrainian Svoboda party assaulted the head of National Television Company of Ukraine and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. "The departure of President Yanukovych put an end to the bloody confrontations, but daunting new challenges emerged," the report concluded.

*Correction (April 10, 2014): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 96.77 percent of Crimean residents reportedly voted in favor of secession. It was 96.77 percent of Crimean voters who reportedly chose secession. (Return to reading.)

Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images