WASHINGTON — A Twitter-like social media site created and financed by the United States Agency for International Development for use in Cuba was an attempt to promote open communications among citizens on the island nation, not a covert attempt to overthrow the government, the agency’s top official told members of Congress during a hearing on Tuesday.
Appearing before both the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees, Dr. Rajiv Shah, U.S.A.I.D.'s administrator, told members that the program was similar to others that the agency has financed in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“These programs are part of our mission to promote open communications,” he said.
Dr. Shah said he did not know who created the Cuban program as it was conceived before his appointment as administrator. He insisted, however, that “there was no covert activity that took place.”
But Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Senate subcommittee, said the program was ill conceived and endangered the lives of agency workers.
“It taints U.S.A.I.D. workers as spies,” Mr. Leahy said.
The argument over the social media project comes days after The Associated Press first reported that U.S.A.I.D. had financed the site to cause unrest on the island in hopes of creating a “Cuban Spring” with citizens rising up in opposition to the government, similar to the revolts in the Middle East.
In a blog post on Monday, U.S.A.I.D. disputed key parts of The A.P. article, saying that the Cuba program was never covert and that it was publicly disclosed in documents provided to Congress from 2008 through 2013.
The agency said the documents clearly showed that the purpose of the program was to “break the ‘information blockade’ or promote ‘information sharing’ amongst Cubans.”
In addition, the agency said the documents disclosed that the program would include the use or “promotion of new ‘technologies’ and/or ‘new media’ to achieve its goals.”
The Cuban Twitter program ran from 2008 to 2012, through a contractor who hid the United States’ financing of the site. The site, which grew to 68,000 users, was shut down after the contract ended.
Despite harsh criticism of the program by several members on the two committees, two Florida representatives, Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, praised what they said was an effort to undermine the Cuban government and called the program a success.
“It did have results and it did connect Cubans to each other,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said.
Still, Mr. Leahy, who was visibly annoyed by Dr. Shah’s insistence that the program was legal and not covert, blamed it for further endangering the life of Alan Gross, a U.S.A.I.D. contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.
Mr. Gross, 64, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 after working for the United States agency to provide Internet access to the island’s Jewish community, circumventing Cuban government censors. He was accused of distributing satellite and computer equipment without the proper permits.
Mr. Leahy also accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to free Mr. Gross. Dr. Shah said the administration was working to gain the contractor’s freedom.
On Tuesday, Mr. Gross began a hunger strike.