(Adds comment from White House, paragraphs 7-9)
WASHINGTON, April 3 (Reuters) - A U.S. agency created a "Cuban Twitter" to undermine Cuba's communist government and get around its strict Internet prohibitions, using secret shell companies financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press reported on Thursday.
The two-year project drew 40,000 users who did not know the communications network was devised by a U.S. agency and designed to push them toward political dissent, according to the AP. They also did not know their personal information was being gathered.
The report identified the U.S. Agency for International Development, which delivers aid to the world's poor, as being behind the project.
The communications network was called "ZunZuneo," Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet, and the AP said its goal was to build an audience of young users.
The plan for the social network was to draw in a certain number of users with messages on sports, music and other non-controversial topics. Then the operators would introduce political content to try to inspire spontaneous demonstrations, the AP reported. One USAID document cited by the AP said the goal was to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
It was not clear if the program was illegal but a statement Thursday from USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said the project was reviewed in 2013 by the Government Accounting Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law.
Herrick and White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was U.S. policy to help Cubans communicate with each other and the outside world.
"The purpose of the ZunZuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," Herrick said in a statement. "At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that."
"Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong," Carney said. "In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course, the government has taken steps to be discreet. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. This is not unique to Cuba."
Interviews and more than 1,000 pages of documents obtained by the AP showed USAID was careful to hide Washington's ties to the project, the report said. It used companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to conceal the money trail.
"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," read a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project's creators, published by AP. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."
ZunZuneo began shortly after Cuba's arrest of American contractor Alan Gross, 63, in Cuba in December 2009, the AP said. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive.
USAID said ZunZuneo ended in September 2012, the AP reported. (Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and David Gregorio)