January 13, 2012 The U.S. Congress is showing bipartisan support fot the latest policy by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to monitor social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to detect current or emerging threats to the homeland.
There has been a lot of controversy since last week’s announcement by the Department of Homeland Security about the new National Operations Center (NOC)’s Media Monitoring Initiative in which DHS grants “written permission to retain data on users of social media and online networking platforms.”
Rueters reports that in December, the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence Chair, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and top ranking Democrat, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security encouraging the monitoring of popular social media websites.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Meehan said the letter dated December 16, had not been previously released.
The letter followed a hearing by the Subcommittee on December 6 entitled “Jihadist Use of Social Media – How to Prevent Terrorism and Preserve Innovation.” During his opening statement, Chairman Meehan told a panel of experts that over the past year, the subcommittee held several hearings to examine threats to the U.S. Homeland from around the world.
“One common theme throughout all these hearings was that terrorist networks are spreading their message, recruiting sympathizers, and are connecting operationally online,” Meehan said.
While terrorists have communicated via the Internet for many years, terrorists groups such as al Qaeda did so through online forums dedicated to reaching its members with their message. However, in recent years as social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have evolved, terrorist organizations have taken advantage of the widespread popularity of social media websites to spread propaganda and to target and recruit younger generations thoughout the Western world – and successfully.
Meehan told the panel of experts that he called the hearing to learn about about what can be done, and whether or not social media websites can become useful sources of intelligence in our fight against terrorism.
Rep. Meehan highlighted the high profile case of Jihad Jane, the online screen name of a Pennslyvania woman, Colleen LaRose, who became committed to jihadi on the Internet. LaRose was arrested as part of a terror plot that targeted a Swedish cartoonist. The case is importat because:
“[LaRose] she did not receive formal training in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in her own apartment in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She enthusiastically posted and commented on YouTube videos supporting al Qaeda and their allies, but her enthusiasm for jihad went beyond watching videos and offering moral support. She made contacts online with other jihadis, solicited funding, and orchestrated an actual terror plot.”
Renown terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins told lawmakers that al Qaeda is the first terrorist organization to fully exploit the Internet. Jenkins explained:
“al Qaeda regards itself as a global movement and dependent on a global communications network to reach its perceived constituents. It sees its mission as not simply creating terror among its foes but awakening the Muslim community. Its leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.”
In the letter addressed to the Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis, Caryn Wagner, Rep. Patrick Meehan and Rep. Jackie Speier wrote:
“[We] believe it would be advantageous for DHS and the broader Intelligence Community to carefully parse the massive streams of data from various social media outlets to identify current or emerging threats to our homeland security.”
The authors, however, did express concern that monitoring social media networks would raise “privacy and civil liberties concerns,” according to Rueters. Meehan said:
“Yet there are important civil liberties questions involving U.S. government monitoring of social media and Americans’ Internet traffic. We are seeking answers on the Department’s guidelines and procedures to ensure Americans’ civil liberties are safeguarded.”