Report: Pentagon’s Counter Extremism Group Designing Pilot Program to Surveil Military

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The Biden Pentagon’s new Counter Extremism Working Group (CEWG) is planning to surveil members of the military’s social media accounts for “extremism” using a private surveillance firm in order to circumvent First Amendment restrictions on government monitoring, according to a recent report.

Babel Street is currently the frontrunner for private surveillance firms the Pentagon is considering, the Intercept reported Tuesday.

The firm buys bulk cellular location data and sells it to federal government agencies, including the Secret Service, to bypass surveillance warrant requirements, according to the report.

The Pentagon announced in April it would look into screening service members and recruits’ social media accounts, as Breitbart News has reported.

The Pentagon’s memo said one of the CEWG’s four lines of effort (LOE) includes pursuing better screening of troops’ and recruits’ social media. It said:

This LOE will examine the Department’s pursuit of scalable and cost effective capabilities to screen publically [sic] available information in accessions and continuous vetting for national security positions. The LOE will make recommendations on further development of such capabilities and incorporating algorithms and additional processing into social media screening platforms. This LOE will also endeavor to develop policy to expand user activity monitoring of both classified and unclassified systems.

However, the Pentagon had not identified what firms it would rely on to conduct the monitoring. The CEWG is being led by Bishop Garrison, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s senior adviser on diversity and inclusion efforts.

A spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee provided the Intercept with a 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 pilot program will use keywords to identify potential extremists, a senior Pentagon official told the outlet.

Civil rights experts expressed alarm.

“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,” Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told the Intercept. “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.”

Harsha Panduranga, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, added, “There is little evidence that social media screening is an effective screening tool … . But we do know that facilitating dragnet surveillance of the modern public square harms free speech and privacy, imposing a disparate impact on people who have traditionally borne the brunt of government profiling in the name of national security.”

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