As the blogosphere continues to discuss the story of ZunZuneo, the USAID project to create a social media network in Cuba that could be used to foment political subversion, Zeynep Tufekci criticizes the project for lending credence to authoritarian claims that Internet activists are all American stooges:

Unfortunately, what might have been a well-meaning attempt to bring some free speech to the Castros’ Cuba now threatens the efforts of millions of people around the world who are harnessing the power of social media to challenge censorship and propaganda, and have no connection to the U.S. government. Admittedly, most authoritarian governments hardly needed an excuse to taint social media as a tool of foreign powers. They’ve being doing it for years. But for their core supporters, their rantings about American plots behind every tweet just got a lot more credible.

Jon Lee Anderson worries about our increasing reliance on private contractors to carry out sensitive state projects:

Quite apart from the rights or wrongs of the U.S. government using commercial social media for espionage or to organize political subversion in Cuba, the case presents another troubling issue: ZunZuneo was being run through a private operator, a firm called Mobile Accord, that had won a financial contract from the U.S. government. This is consistent with a growing pattern in recent years, in which implementation of the most sensitive aspects of American security policy is increasingly handed over to contractors who are working for money, not necessarily for philosophical or even patriotic reasons.

The mercenary firm Blackwater, renamed XE and then Academi (after earning notoriety in the killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, in 2007), has effectively become an action arm of the C.I.A., its personnel loading the missiles on the drones that are fired at presumed terrorists based on White House decisions. Clearly, there are risks to this ever-expanding outsourcing. That outraged patriot who divulged the N.S.A.’s secrets was first a C.I.A. contractor and then an N.S.A. contractor.

Looking back at Mobile Accord’s relationship with the government, which began in 2009 with a similar project in Pakistan, Robinson Meyer notes an irony:

In 2010 and 2011, the White House, the State Department—the entire apparatus of American diplomacy—pushed an Internet freedom agenda. American interests, they said, were advanced by the penetration of networked tech abroad. Then the U.S. government got into being a tech client and discovered it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. ZunZuneo’s story is that of hundreds of other startups in 2011 and 2012—ZunZuneo just happened to be supported by the U.S. government. ZunZuneo’s monetary supporters weren’t the only ones who, in 2011, discovered that they’d backed a product with no clear monetization strategy, nor were they the first to panic and look for an exit. …

Who did ZunZuneo benefit most of all, eventually? Cubacel: The Cuban government’s state-run mobile monopoly which owned the physical infrastructure through which ZunZuneo messages traveled. USAID, in trying to harass the Cuban government, wound up financially supporting it.

Greenwald was unsurprised at the revelations:

These ideas–discussions of how to exploit the internet, specifically social media, to surreptitiously disseminate viewpoints friendly to western interests and spread false or damaging information about targets–appear repeatedly throughout the archive of materials provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Documents prepared by NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ–and previously published by The Intercept as well as some by NBC News–detailed several of those programs, including a unit devoted in part to “discrediting” the agency’s enemies with false information spread online.

José Cárdenas, who was involved in USAID’s Cuba Democracy Program during the Bush administration, defends projects like ZunZuneo:

That the programs were implemented discreetly was precisely to protect peoples’ lives. The Castro regime has been abusing the Cuban people for five decades; no one was about to advocate advertising the details of what we were trying to accomplish on the island.

In any case, critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba have consistently mischaracterized the Cuba Democracy Program as something sinister or unprecedented. In fact, there is nothing sinister or unique about the program, which is administered by both the State Department and USAID. It is what is known within the bureaucracy as a “cross-border program” into a non-presence country — meaning we are trying to help support people living in repressive states in which we have no local development office. There are, or have been, at least six other countries in which the U.S. government runs similar cross-border programs.

And, though they fault the project for lacking a long-term strategy, the Bloomberg editors commend its aims:

Yes, the Cold War is over, and the end of the Cuba embargo is long overdue. But the Cubans are not gentle socialists. And there is a kind of Cold War 2.0 – between democratic nations and a growing cadre of repressive states that stretches from Russia to Egypt and onward to Latin America. These countries will use any digital means necessary to stifle free expression. USAID’s so-called “Cuban Twitter” plan was by no means perfect, but arguing that such programs are unnecessary is the equivalent of bringing pen and paper to a flame war.