The Pentagon was mired in controversy this week after press reports said it was planning to regularly monitor the social media accounts of all uniformed military personnel for “extremist” material.
When asked about this possibility on Tuesday, the Pentagon wasn’t able to answer definitively.
The intrigue started on Monday, when The Intercept said it had reviewed internal Defense Department documents that said officials were planning a pilot program for screening all social media content for indications of extremism among the troops. A current Pentagon official added that the plan is to “continuously” monitor these accounts for “concerning behavior.”
The effort is thought to be driven by Bishop Garrison, an adviser to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who was brought in to stamp out “extremism” in the department.
When the press asked about this report on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said there was no truth to it.
“I think there's some misreporting on this,” he said. “Actually, I don't think there's been misreporting, I know there's been misreporting. There's no pilot program ring run by Mr. Garrison or the extremist working group to… examine social media.”
However, the Pentagon’s April 9 press release on efforts to eliminate extremism from the ranks talked about the idea of “publicly available electronic information in accessions and continuous vetting for national security positions.” It also talked about consequences for “reading, following and liking extremist material and content in social media forums and platforms,” which again implies ongoing monitoring.
Kirby’s later answers to questions only muddied the issue further. Kirby later hedged by saying there is no pilot program “that I'm aware of.”
When asked if he had seen the document written about in The Intercept, Kirby said he had not. He was then asked if he would make the document public if it does exist.
“If it exists, we’ll look at it and see if it’s – if it’s something that potentially worth public release or that we could,” Kirby said.
Reporters then noted that many of Kirby’s answers only clarified that no broad social media monitoring program exists today, and that reporters were really asking him if anything like that was being considered.
“I think the question at hand is, are you considering, is the department considering an option to engage in some different type of consistent, constant monitoring of service members' social media?” one reporter asked.
“I’m not aware of any such effort to do that now…” Kirby replied.
“I’m not asking if you’re doing it now,” the reporter said.
“I know, Barb, but… how much farther in the future do you want me to predict? There's no effort run by the extremist working group to set some sort of new social media monitoring policy,” Kirby said.
Kirby then seemed to backtrack by admitting that some program along these lines might still be developed by the working group on extremism.
“I'm not aware of any efforts to expand what we're doing right now, but… the extremist working group is certainly going to look at the degree to which the information environment impacts or is impacted by extremist activity. That would include the social media landscape.”
The Defense Department in April said it would take immediate actions to reduce “extremism” in the military, including setting a definition for that term, something the Navy has been without since it was introduced as a goal in 2012.
In an April 27 op-ed, AUSN Executive Director Jason Beardsley argued that this word should be scrapped from the DOD rule, and said uniformed personnel are already able to be disciplined for activities that upset unit cohesion. He warned that defining the term would put DOD in the business of deciding which groups are “extreme,” and further politicize a department that should be focused on defending America.
“The Pentagon should be strategizing on how to insulate us from bad actors who threaten America,” Beardsley wrote. “Instead, it’s being snookered into thinking its real job is to target Americans who dare to even question the woke fascism that is pervading this country.”
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