By Juan O. Tamayo The Miami Herald
The documents were definitely not classified as secret. But they contained detailed information about U.S. government programs to help Cuban dissidents that Havana has outlawed as a semi-clandestine campaign to topple the communist system.
So when the U.S. Agency for International Development mistakenly used an unencrypted line to send the documents to U.S. diplomats in Havana, USAID officials were chagrined and some of the authors of the document were incredulous.
“An amazingly stupid thing to do,” said an official of one of the groups that generated the documents – minutely detailed applications for a $6 million USAID program to train emerging leaders of Cuba’s nongovernmental sectors.
His application of more than 200 pages contained a complete history of his past work with USAID’s pro-democracy programs in Cuba, the official said, some names of possible trainees and venues where they might be trained.
USAID has played down the impact of the mistake, arguing that the U.S. government never classified the pro-democracy programs as secret or even confidential.
“Nothing about USAID’s Cuba program is classified. We simply carry out programs in a discreet manner to help ensure the safety of all those involved,” said USAID spokesman Karl Duckworth.
But the agency’s own documents highlight the security concerns surrounding the program.
“Given the nature of the Cuban regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID Program, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID … funding,” one agency contract states.
A slide presentation for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have been awarded USAID grants advises them to report any “Security Concerns, including Government of Cuba harassment and detention.”
Alan P. Gross, a USAID subcontractor from Maryland, is serving a 15-year prison term in Havana for delivering to Cuban Jews three satellite telephones, paid for by the U.S. government, so they could have direct and uncensored access to the Internet.
It was therefore shocking when USAID officials told applicants for the $6 million in grants in September that their applications had been sent to U.S. diplomats in Havana for their review on an unsecure line instead of the usual encrypted line.
Duckworth declined to comment further on the incident. But four officials of NGOs that applied for the funds provided details to El Nuevo Herald. They asked for anonymity, saying they wanted to stay on good terms with USAID.
The USAID request for proposal SOL-OAA-13-000110, posted publicly on July 10, offered a total of $6 million over three years, broken up into at least two grants of no more than $3 million and no less than $1 million.
Its goal was “to strengthen human capacity on the island by providing opportunities for civil society leaders to travel outside of Cuba to gain technical skills and experiential learning in an array of fields important to democracy and civil society development.”
More than 20 NGOs are believed to have submitted applications by the Aug. 9 deadline. Competition for the money is stiff. The applications included proposed budgets, ways of monitoring and evaluations progress, organizational charts and past experience in Cuba.
The applications are not required to include names or contacts, “but you usually include some to show that you know people, that your organization has some weight,” said one of the NGO officials.
USAID officials called the applicants in late August to deliver the bad news: All their proposals had been sent on an unsecure line to Havana. One applicant quoted an agency official as saying, “We think the Cuban government may have seen all the proposals.”
Cuba’s intelligence agencies consider the United States as their No. 1 enemy, and spy constantly on Washington’s diplomats in Havana, monitoring their communications and bugging their homes.
USAID told the NGOs they could withdraw the proposals if they considered the risks to be too high. None the applicants withdrew. One said there was no sense turning back since Cuban intelligence no doubt already had the documents.
A few weeks later, each of the applicants received rejection letters that made no mention of the USAID gaffe but noted that their proposals were weak in one way or another, the NGO officials said.
The $6 million was distributed among USAID’s other ongoing Cuba democracy programs, created under the Helms-Burton act of 1996.
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Security around the USAID programs has long been an issue because of the fears that Cuban government officials can get their hands on sensitive information and use it to disrupt the programs or even throw participants in jail – like Gross.
The Washington-based Freedom House voluntarily surrendered a $1.7 million Cuba grant in 2011 after complaining that USAID was asking for too much information about how the money was being spent, including the identities and travel plans of participants.
“We take very seriously the need to be accountable for these programs,” Freedom House Deputy Director of Programs Daniel Calingaert said at the time. But USAID’s requests for information are “not just onerous. They really raise the risk of what we do.”
A U.S federal indictment unsealed in April accused former USAID attorney Marta Rita Velazquez of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of Cuba. She is living with her husband in Sweden, and has not been extradited.
The indictment said Velazquez introduced convicted Cuban spy Ana Belen Montes, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst, to a Cuban intelligence official in New York in 1984, when the two women were graduate students in Washington.