Critics are raising questions about the Associated Press’s recent report on a U.S. program to foster civil society in Cuba and have accused the news organization of cooperating with sources who have a political agenda against U.S. policy toward the island.
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The AP recently reported on the program that sent Spanish-speaking youth to Cuba to help build health and civil society associations, which the news organization described as a "clandestine operation" with the goal of "ginning up rebellion." Human rights groups involved in the program criticized the report and said it mischaracterized the nature of the civil society projects.
Defenders of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program say the AP has been less than forthright about the sources for its reporting. They also allege that the AP obtained information and documents from longstanding critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba’s communist government.
The anti-Castro website Capitol Hill Cubans alleged that the key source for the AP’s reporting on both the civil society program and a separate project, an attempt to develop a Twitter-like social media service for Cubans, was Fulton Armstrong. Armstrong is a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staffer and senior intelligence analyst for Latin America.
Armstrong told the Washington Free Beacon in an email that although the AP contacted him, he was not the main source of information and documents. "The AP's reports are pretty obviously based on documentary evidence provided by insiders concerned about the regime-change programs," he said, adding that he was never fully briefed on what he called USAID’s "clandestine, covert operations."
"Because the SFRC had investigated these scandalously run secret programs during my tenure on the Committee staff, and because my boss (Chairman [John] Kerry) was concerned enough to put a hold on the programs for a while, I was logically among the dozens of people to be called by the AP reporters," he said.
Armstrong has long raised the ire of U.S. officials and activists advocating a tough line against the Castro regime. Foreign policy officials in the George W. Bush administration attempted to reassign Armstrong from Latin American intelligence after arguing that he was "soft" on threats from Cuba, according to a 2003 report by the New York Times.
He wrote in a 2011 op-ed that "it’s time to clean up the regime-change programs" and focus on securing the release of Alan Gross, a former USAID subcontractor who has been imprisoned for almost five years in Cuba. Gross worked to provide Internet access to small Cuban communities, but authorities arrested him on charges of attempting to destabilize the government.
Armstrong also served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Latin America when a widely criticized Pentagon report about Cuba was drafted. The 1997 report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) determined that Cuba’s military "poses a negligible conventional threat to the U.S. or surrounding countries."
The original drafter of the report was Ana Montes. Montes was later revealedto be a top Cuban spy in the U.S. government and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Armstrong said one of his responsibilities as a senior intelligence officer at the time was to "shepherd it through interagency coordination."
"The draft was very weak and was heavily rewritten by representatives of all 15 agencies at the table," he said. "All 15 agencies endorsed the rewritten paper without reservation."
He added that he was "deeply shocked by her arrest" and that "not one of the dozens of [intelligence community] professionals with whom Montes interacted suspected she was a spy."
Critics of Cuba’s government note that it continues to be a U.S.-designatedsponsor of terrorism and authoritarian regimes, and that it attempted an arms shipment to North Korea last year that violated U.S. and international sanctions.
An AP spokeswoman declined to comment on what information its reporters received from Armstrong or other sources. "We don’t discuss our sourcing," said senior media relations manager Erin Madigan White in an email.
Jose Cardenas, a former senior USAID administrator in the George W. Bush administration who helped oversee the Cuba program, said in an interview that the AP "jumped to too many conclusions" and "misinterpreted" internal documents about the program. Although some security protocols were necessary to not arouse the suspicion of Cuban authorities, the projects were more about developing relations between young Cubans rather than instigating a rebellion, he said.
The AP’s source is "acting on a political agenda," Cardenas claimed.
"It raises serious questions about the veracity and integrity of their whole story," he said.
The AP published a blog post on Thursday that provided some background on its reporting. It said reporter Desmond Butler’s "source gave him a new batch of documents" for the article, and noted that one of the investigative reporters used a secure phone and encrypted emails "because communications in Venezuela, like Cuba, are not considered secure."
The AP also described how one of its reporters repeatedly attempted to contact the main organizer of a group of Venezuelans who traveled to Cuba for the program, including filming the woman as she refused to talk outside her house and slammed her door. A Venezuelan human rights group involved in the program denounced the AP’s reporting on Thursday and accused it of harassing one of its members.
The reporters who covered the story won a $500 prize for keeping "the AP out front on American secret activities in Cuba," according to the AP.