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Pentagon to spy on service members’ social media for extremism, report says

The Pentagon in Arlington county, Va. (Dreamstime/TNS)
May 18, 2021

The Biden administration’s Department of Defense plans to start monitoring service members’ social media for extremist content, according to internal documents from the Pentagon reviewed by The Intercept on Monday.

A new social media screening program is currently being designed by an “extremism steering committee” under the leadership of Bishop Garrison, a senior adviser to the secretary of defense, the documents said, according to The Intercept. The program will “continuously” scan military personnel for “concerning behaviors.”

While the military has historically hesitated to surveil service members for extremism due to First Amendment protections, the Pentagon’s pilot program will employ a private surveillance organization to get around restrictions on governmental monitoring, a senior Department of Defense official said.

The DoD has yet to choose an outside firm, but Babel Street, a company that sells social media monitoring software, is the current front runner.

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. Furthermore, in November, the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command used one of the company’s products to track individuals for special forces operations, according to Vice.

The program will use keywords to identify potential extremists, raising concerns about exactly what those keywords will be.

“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.”

According to a spokesperson for Rep. Don Bacon, a House Armed Services Committee member, the committee is unaware of the program.

“I have discussed this with our defense team and as of right now, we have not heard anything from DoD that would confirm this story,” Bacon’s press secretary Abbey Schieffer said.

Another spokesperson for the committed provided The Intercept with the following statement:

The Committee understands that the Department of Defense is exploring a means of implementing social media screening in conjunction with background investigations. We anticipate that any social media screening would be intended only as an additional means of vetting cleared individuals or those seeking to obtain a security clearance, not as a tool for ongoing surveillance of all men and women in uniform. That said, Secretary Austin has been clear about his intentions to understand to what extent extremism exists in the force and its effect on good order and discipline. We look forward to hearing the results of the stand down and the Department’s plan to move forward.

The report comes as military officials continue to ramp up efforts to combat extremism within its ranks. In a video statement released earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called on troops throughout the U.S. military to report extremism they see in the ranks and share any ideas they have to “stamp out” the issue.

“We need your help,” Austin said. “I’m talking, of course, about extremism and extremist ideology. Views and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in, and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution.”

“I’ve seen this before, I’ve lived through it as a soldier and as a commander,” Austin continued regarding extremism in the ranks. “It’s not new to our country and sadly it’s not new to our military. What is new is the speed and the pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today, thanks to social media and the aggressive, organized and emboldened attitude many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are now applying to their recruitment and to their operations.”