The Pentagon’s top spokesman issued a full-throated denial of a story by The Intercept, which reported the Defense Department wants to monitor troops’ social media accounts for evidence of ties to extremism.

“There’s no effort inside this extremist working group to somehow spy on every individual in the military or spend hours and hours just gleaning through social media activity just for the sake of doing it,” John Kirby said at a Pentagon news conference. “This isn’t about some sort of surveillance program of our own people.”

Ken Klippenstein first reported on Monday that the military’s Countering Extremism Working Group is developing a program to constantly monitor what service members say on social media for certain keywords indicating extremism. The working group is led by Bishop Garrison, who is the senior advisor to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on human capital, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In order to circumvent service members’ First Amendment protections, the pilot program would award a contract to a private firm to conduct the warrantless surveillance of service members, according to The Intercept, which cited internal Defense Department documents and an unnamed official with direct knowledge of the program.

Maj. Eldon Beck speaks on First Amendment rights during a Social Media Misconduct Symposium at Breckenridge Auditorium, Marine Corps War College, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Mar. 30, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dana Beesley)

But on Tuesday, Kirby described The Intercept’s story, which has been picked up by The New York Post and other media outlets, as “misreporting.”

“There’s no pilot program being run by Mr. Garrison or the extremist working group to examine social media,” Kirby told reporters.

The working group is trying to determine how many extremists are in the ranks and come up with recommendations for Austin about how to solve the problem, Kirby said. Garrison’s mandate does not include rewriting Defense Department policies.

Kirby said the extremist working group has not awarded a contract to a private surveillance firm to monitor service members on social media.

He also said that the military services already look at potential recruits’ social media activities as part of the enlistment process, despite a Defense Department report to Congress last year finding several issues in online vetting, including the ease with which people can use aliases to post content on social media.

“Human analysts cannot effectively and efficiently search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DoD background vetting,” the report says.

Austin issued a memo on April 9 that appeared to address that issue by directing the Defense Department to look into obtaining “cost-effective capabilities to screen publically [sic.] available information in accessions and continuous vetting for national security positions.”

“The LOE [line of effort] will make recommendations on further development of such capabilities and incorporating algorithms and additional processing into social media screening platforms,” the memo says.

In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Va. Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other Saturday after violence erupted at a white nationalist rally in Virginia. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

A spokesman for The Intercept cited this memo when Task & Purpose asked about Kirby’s comments denying their story.

“That the Pentagon has considered ‘incorporating algorithms and additional processing into social media screening platforms’ to monitor for extremism is a matter of public record and was referenced in an April 9 memo signed by the Defense Secretary,” said Rodrigo Brandao. “We stand by our reporting that the Pentagon is developing just such a program.”

House Armed Services Committee spokeswoman Monica Matoush issued a statement in response to The Intercept’s story saying that as far as lawmakers know, the Defense Department is looking into using social media screening as part of 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,” Matoush said.

Reporters pressed Kirby on Tuesday about whether the Defense Department has any plans to expand social media monitoring beyond the recruiting process.

Kirby said the Pentagon already looks at certain people’s social media activity as part of its “insider threat program,” but he did not elaborate on who exactly is the target of such surveillance.

“When there’s a concern about the potential of a threat coming from inside, one of the things you want to do is take a look at the social media footprint, see what’s out there in the public space,” Kirby said. “That has been happening for a while. If you have cause to be concerned about an individual or a group of individuals and the threat that they might pose to the organization, it would be irresponsible not to take a look at what’s out there in social media.”

Kirby also said he is not aware of any efforts to expand the Defense Department’s current social media monitoring policy.

“But, as I said at the outset, the extremist working group is certainly going to look at the degree to which the information environment impacts – or is impacted by – extremist activity,” Kirby said. “That would include the social media landscape. But it’s putting the cart well, well before the horse to say that we’ve got some policy we’re getting to roll out that would dramatically increase or expand social media monitoring.”

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Featured image: Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby holds a press briefing, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., May 18, 2021. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

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