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Pentagon denies alleged plan to spy on troops’ social media for extremist activity

The number of known military installations with water sources contaminated by cancer-linked firefighting foam is likely to rise, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Dreamstime/TNS)
May 19, 2021

The Department of Defense (DoD) pushed back on a report alleging the department has plans to monitor service members’ social media for extremist activity, with the Pentagon’s top spokesman calling it “misreporting” on Tuesday.

On Monday, The Intercept reported that a domestic extremism working group within the Biden administration’s DoD was currently designing a new social media screening program under the leadership of Bishop Garrison, a senior adviser to the secretary of defense, internal Pentagon documents reviewed by the outlet said. The program will reportedly “continuously” scan military personnel for “concerning behaviors.”

But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby denied The Intercept’s claims, saying at a press conference on Tuesday, “There’s no pilot program being run by Mr. Garrison or the extremist working group to examine social media.”

“There’s — there’s no effort inside this extremist working group to somehow spy on every individual in the military or spend hours and hours just gleaning through social media activity, just for the sake of doing it. This isn’t about some sort of surveillance program of our own people,” he continued.

Kirby said the working group’s goal is to review Pentagon policy concerning extremism, but does not assist with making new policy. It is also tasked with creating an official definition of extremism, in addition to facilitating studies or surveys to get a better understanding of the prevalence of extremism in the military.

Kirby also said he is “not aware” of any program that would utilize a private firm to surveil service members’ online activity, contrary to what The Intercept reported.

Kirby added that the Department of Defense already looks at the social media accounts of recruits, calling it “good, common sense,” but reiterated that he is “not aware of such a contract with such a company, and certainly there is no such contract being led by Mr. Garrison’s program.”

In The Intercept’s original report, The DoD was reportedly considering Babel Street, a private company that sells social media monitoring software, to assist with monitoring service members social media.

Babel Street has been the subject of criticism for its method of purchasing bulk cellular location data and selling it to federal agencies like the Secret Service. In November, the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command also used one of the company’s products to track individuals for special forces operations, according to Vice.

The Intercept also claimed the surveillance would rely on keywords to identify potential extremists, a strategy that one expert called “flawed.”

“Using key words to monitor social media isn’t just an unnecessary privacy invasion, it is a flawed strategy that will ensure it is short-lived,” said Mike German, a retired FBI agent who did undercover work in neo-Nazi groups. “It will undoubtedly produce a flood of false positives that will waste security resources and undermine morale, without identifying the real problem, which is the tolerance for those that openly engage in racist behavior and discrimination.”