RAJIV SHAH, ADMINISTRATOR OF USAID: Well, Andrea, first, thank you for having me and I'm eager to talk about the Global Development Lab. Let me just note that USAID, as part of our developmental policy, provides support to civil society all around the world. That's true in Afghanistan. In Kenya, we support young people to help prevent genocide. In Senegal, support the process of democratic elections.
In Cuba specifically, this program is a congressionally mandated and congressionally supported effort. We've been very specific to notify all of the elements of the program publicly. The program has been the subject of a very in depth government accountability report conducted in 2013 that looks specifically at this project and found not only that this effort was consistent with the law as defined, and consistent with the congressional mandates and guidance, but also the report actually complimented USAID for the management reforms we put in place to make the programs in Cuba both more fairly awarded and transparent.
I'll note sometimes the work we carry out is carried out discreetly in the context of keeping people who are doing this work safe. You and I have previously discussed how we're reaching 4.2 million people inside of Syria with life saving humanitarian support. And some of it has to be done discreetly because we know that those aid workers are targeted and we know that more than 120 of them from our implementing partners have actually lost their lives.
MITCHELL: But Raj, let me ask you -
SHAH: So we take these extra efforts. It doesn't make it covert but it does make it discreet.
MITCHELL: Let me ask you about the fact that the people who signed up for this free program didn't know they were dealing with the U.S. government. That puts them at risk. Secondly, this was launched after Alan Gross, the USAID contractor was already in jail in Cuba and defending himself and U.S. arguing that he had not been doing anything secretly. So doesn't that put him at risk as well?
SHAH: Look, there are a lot of times when people are unaware of exactly where the funding support comes from for specific efforts. But this is not a covert program. Parts of it were conducted discreetly. The agency is putting out a detailed statement on the story to which you're referring, which by the way includes a number of significant inaccuracies that I won't get into here but we will speak to later.
And the reality is not all of what was reported is true. What we do know is true is that a comprehensive GAO study found the program to be consistent with the law, that the elements of the program that are under discussion have been notified publicly, that all of the funding for it comes from Congress and transparent and notified efforts, and that this is simply not a covert effort in any regard. It is executed discreetly precisely because of the risks to people like Alan Gross, whom we think about every day.
MITCHELL: And when -- we have documents that say it was done, quote, to be done below the radar in using companies in the Cayman Islands and Spain and Costa Rica and not labeling it as a U.S. government program, do you think that that is appropriate?
SHAH: We're going to respond to the specific pieces that are in the AP story. But there are a number of inaccuracies in it and some of those beneath that definition. The reality is we do conduct our work discreetly in order to protect people from, you know, negative consequences, but we execute the programs transparently. They are notified to Congress. And these - - this specific effort was the subject of a GAO investigation that actually complimented USAID on the management reforms and the oversight of the Cuba effort.
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC HOST: And joining me now Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also the Appropriations chair for Foreign Operations. Well, Senator Leahy, were you aware of this program in Cuba?
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-VT: No, absolutely not. And if I had been, I would have said what in heaven's name are you thinking? This is dumb, dumb, dumb. Now, USAID does a lot of good things around the world, I think I have probably gotten them more dollars through our committee than anybody every has in the past.
But this is not something that was declared to us. If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID. They do a lot of great things around the world. I applaud a lot of things they do. I've visited different parts of some of the poorest parts of the world. Things that they are doing well. This is not one of them.
Dr. Shah will be before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday. He's going to have to answer some very specific questions. I mean, this – what they were trying to do here makes me think of people -- I somehow think they are still at the State Department and writing memos they were writing back with President Ike Eisenhower. You know, if we just stay tough, those Castro brothers will be out of there any day now. They've been saying that for 60 years. This made no sense at all.
MITCHELL: Senator, they say that they briefed Congress. Now, I don't know whom they briefed. Did they brief the Intelligence Committee? But if it's not covert, I don't know who would have known if you don't know and you're the appropriator.
LEAHY: If USAID says they briefed the people giving them money for this, that's not so. We give them the money. And we give them a lot more money than they have had in the past. But I was not briefed. I know of nobody who was briefed on this. I think most people would say are you out of your mind? This is not a program USAID should be involved with.
For one thing, it accomplished practically nothing. I'd rather say USAID say, look, we're going to come down. We've got a lot of businesses, young entrepreneurs in Cuba, who say I'm ready to help if they want. We have other countries that do that, because, one, they're not -- they are not hampered by the foolish self-defeating embargo the U.S. has. So we have other countries that are. If they want to set up Twitter accounts or all, let these other countries do it openly. Let USAID do the things they do well and do very well. This is not something they do well, just -- and the proof is in the pudding.
MITCHELL: One of the risks could be to the people who signed up, because now the U.S. government has captured their personal data, their text messages, their phone numbers, and the Cuban government has the ability to work backwards and find out who was involved.
LEAHY; Of course they have. And what did we accomplish from it? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Having more openness with Cuba, we don't have to agree with everything they've done. And we certainly don't agree. We're not going to expect them to have a Jeffersonian democracy any more than they expect us to have Marxist communism here.
But we're the most powerful nation on earth. Here's a little island nation just a few miles off our coast and we treat it as though it's a great threat. We look foolish in the eyes of the rest of Latin America because of that. Instead of doing something like this, we ought to be doing the things to start improving ties between us and the Cuban people.
I know you've been to Cuba, Andrea, I've been to Cuba. We've talked to people there who would love to see closer and better ties to the United States and are sending scholars here, exchanging medical personnel, doing things that could improve the lives of that country.
MITCHELL: What about the risk to Alan Gross. This program was launched after he was already arrested and in jail.
LEAHY: Well, I know there are those in the administration who disagree with me. I think if they had taken the right steps, Alan Gross could have been out of there a year ago. I'll continue to work to try to get him out. He's not a spy. The Cuban government agreed that he is not a spy. But he is a man in ill health with family members who are in ill health. We ought to be working in some way to get him released on humanitarian grounds if nothing else. He's not a spy. He's not considered a spy. He was somebody who got caught up in a stupid program not through any fault of his own.
MITCHELL: And one other question, this was launched under Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. Does that surprise you?
LEAHY: It surprises me because I have a great deal of respect for Hillary Clinton. I think she did a great job as Secretary of State. I'm just wondering what kind of advice she was given on something like this.
MITCHELL: Senator Patrick Leahy, we're going to follow up with this and I know you are as well. Thank you very much.
LEAHY: Thank you very much.
National Network on Cuba (NNOC)