As part of the U.S. government’s increasingly open crackdown on free speech, particularly online, the Pentagon is planning to launch a pilot program that will comb through social media content for material it deems “extremist,” according to internal Defense Department documents reviewed by The Intercept. A source with direct knowledge of the program also confirmed it.
An “extremism steering committee” headed by Bishop Garrison, an adviser to the secretary of defense, is currently designing the social media surveillance program, intended to “continuously” monitor military personnel for “concerning behaviors,” according to a March Pentagon briefing.
The military has balked in the past at eavesdropping on service members due to First Amendment protections, and the fact that this is the United States of America. The program, however, will rely on a private surveillance firm to avoid these troublesome First Amendment restrictions, according to a senior Pentagon official. A firm has reportedly not yet been selected, but the current front runner is Babel Street, a firm that specializes in surveillance tools including social media monitoring software.
Babel Street has drawn notice for its practice of buying bulk cellular phone location data and selling it to national security agencies like the Secret Service, who rely on the private company to bypass warrant requirements that would apply to government entities wanting data.
Vice reported In November that the U.S. Special Operations Command used Locate X, one of Babel Street’s products, to track individuals for special forces operations. One controversial method Babel used was to purchase location data applying to users of a popular Muslim prayer app.
Neither Garrison nor Babel Street immediately responded to requests for comment.
Asked about the program, a spokesperson for House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Don Bacon said they were not aware of it.
“ … We have not heard anything from DoD that would confirm this story,” Bacon’s press secretary Abbey Schieffer said. The Senate Armed Services Committee also did not respond to a request for comment.