WASHINGTON - Is Twitter a threat to national security?
Over the past two weeks, a National Security Council staffer was fired for tweeting anonymous personal attacks on colleagues; a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official had his private conversations published on Twitter by an activist who overheard him on the train; and hackers from the Syrian Electronic Army redirected a pair of tweets from President Barack Obama’s account to YouTube.
The incidents - perhaps more embarrassing than damaging - served to underscore the uneasy relationship between the national security community and social media. At the White House and the National Security Council, most staffers are not permitted to access Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites from their office computers or government-issued mobile phones.
Administration officials said the restrictions are aimed at preventing staffers from downloading dangerous malware onto government networks or accidentally uploading sensitive material onto public networks. The rules also serve to discourage White House aides from conducting business on networks that will not archive their communications as required under the Presidential Records Act.
Only those staffers who need access as part of their official responsibilities, such as the press division, are permitted to log in from the office, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who is among the few with an official Twitter account.
But the restrictions have run into the realities of the modern world, in which news often breaks first on social networks while public officials, journalists and policy experts debate the ramifications in real time. Administration officials often find themselves out of the loop, unable to react to the news or take part in the conversation.
“Certainly it was the case that in the NSC, we were not where we needed to be in terms of engaging people on Twitter,” said Tommy Vietor, a former NSC spokesman who left in the spring for private consulting and started tweeting prolifically. “It was very clear that social media was where a lot of protests were forming and conversations were happening.”
Shawn Brimley, who served at the Pentagon and the NSC from 2009 to 2012, learned that lesson the hard way. On the night in August 2011 when Libyan rebel forces began their march on Tripoli to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, Brimley and his supervisor, Derek Chollet, were monitoring their personal Twitter feeds at home to follow breaking news and firsthand accounts from the region.
But when they called into the White House Situation Room, they learned that analysts there were not aware of the reports of gunshots in the Libyan capital. “We were ahead of what the Situation Room was seeing,” said Brimley, now at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
Brimley said they lobbied successfully to gain access at the White House to a website that re-posts tweets, which NSC officials could read without logging into Twitter.
The U.S. intelligence community has also developed a secure, internal network named eChirp that is patterned after Twitter and allows its analysts to weigh in on breaking news from across several agencies.
In some cases, however, Twitter and other social media sites can be sources of bad reporting and inaccurate “scoops” delivered without vetting, adding to the confusion of already complicated and murky news stories. After the Boston Marathon bombing in April, for example, Twitter and Reddit users identified the wrong man as being responsible.
The recent firing of NSC staffer Jofi Joseph also shows that prohibitions on social media use only go so far. Joseph, who was identified as the person behind an anonymous Twitter feed called natsecwonk, reportedly posted tweets from his personal cellphone in the hallways of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Joseph’s Twitter musings ranged from demeaning wisecracks to insider details about the agency, although he does not appear to have revealed classified information.
Some former NSC staffers said that although reading Twitter can be enjoyable and informative, most security and intelligence analysts do not need access to up-to-the-second breaking news. The office computers allow access to major news sites such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, they said.
“Since I have left, I have found it be extremely useful for real-time information checks,” Jon Wolfsthal, former NSC director of nuclear nonproliferation, said of Twitter. “But unless you are in an action office that is providing real-time intelligence to a military command or operations center, it’s hard to say you desperately need it as an analyst.”
Social sites can also provide critical communication links during unpredictable crises. Former Obama administration official Andrew McLaughlin recalled that during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the only way to establish a connection with the devastated nation was through the instant-messaging service Skype.
McLaughlin, then the administration’s deputy chief information officer, rushed into the office, only to learn that Skype was banned on White House computers. He went home to retrieve his laptop, which he brought back to work. He connected to Skype through a wireless modem.
“My view is that White House technology has to be at the cutting edge,” said McLaughlin, who had been a Google executive before joining the administration. “It’s no longer acceptable to be a lagging implementer.”
At the urging of senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who is an energetic tweeter, the White House has taken steps to allow more access. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz have begun tweeting within the past year. Even first lady Michelle Obama has opened an account. All include the disclaimer that their tweets might be archived.
“It’s fun,” Vietor said of social media. “But at the end of the day, it’s one of several hundred things I turn to to procrastinate.”