From Hush-Hush To Tweet-Tweet: Why The CIA Is Embracing Social Media

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Twitter account was hailed as an information milestone. It is also an attempted assertion of control: because of social media itself, there are fewer and fewer secrets left to tell.

Gabe Palmer/Getty

Say what will you will about the Central Intelligence Agency, just don’t accuse America’s vaunted den of spies of cutting-edge derring-do when it comes to social media.

“It’s about [expletive deleted] time!” said longtime CIA analyst Cindy Storer, reacting to the Agency’s much-ballyhooed, and apparently hand-wringing, decision last Friday to establish a beachhead, at long last, on Facebook and Twitter. “I’ve seen too many times where the CIA’s message is completely squashed by some policymaker or other in the administration, and the American people are not well served—and they get these false impressions of what’s going on.”

Maybe the CIA’s celebrated loss of its social media virginity will serve as a corrective, Storer and other veteran intelligence officials told The Daily Beast. Yet Agency communications specialists are hardly exploring strange new worlds or boldly going where no man has gone before.

Never mind that on its Twitter profile, the Agency calls itself “the Nation’s first line of defense” that can “accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.”

While the CIA quietly established official accounts on YouTube 10 months ago and Flickr three years ago, it has been in no hurry to join the Information Age.

The planet’s preeminent social media platform, Facebook, was launched 10 years ago, and Twitter has been around for eight; many government departments have been using them to communicate with taxpayers for quite a while. Even the arguably more secretive National Security Agency took the Twitter plunge last December.

President Obama and his operatives, meanwhile, have made extensive use of every available social media technology since coming to power in January 2009, basically turning the White House into a multi-platform propaganda outlet that frequently attempts to supplant the influence of traditional journalistic organizations.

“When it comes to external communications, the CIA by nature is pretty conservative,” said veteran CIA official Bill Harlow, who ran the Agency’s media relations shop from 1997 to 2004, “and they’re reluctant to be anywhere near the cutting edge of new technologies.”

Harlow, known as an internal advocate for increased openness with the press and the public, recalled running into stiff resistance when he suggested that the CIA follow the lead of other government agencies—and comply with Clinton Administration policy—by launching a “kids’ page” on its official website.

“There was great reluctance to do that. ‘What will folks say about it? Will people say that we’re trying to recruit their kids or trying to indoctrinate them?’” Harlow recounted. “And my answer was, ‘No, we’re just complying with the policy to encourage their interest in math and science and history.’ When we first announced it, there were gasps on the outside, and probably a few gasps on the inside. ‘What’s the CIA doing?’ And now, among some people, there’s a similar reaction: What’s the CIA doing—communicating in 140 characters or less?”

Longtime CIA official Philip Mudd, who was deputy director of counterterrorism analysis when he retired in 2010, said his conversations with current Agency operatives confirm Harlow’s view.

“Some people at the Agency don’t like this,” said Mudd, who has written about national security issues for The Daily Beast. “They would say the mission of the Agency is to collect, report, analyze and disseminate secret intelligence. How does this relate to our mission? My response is this is the Information Age, and a lot of what the CIA is involved in is the same thing that America is debating… We can resist being part of the public debate, but that’s futile.”

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Storer, who spent 21 years at the Agency before retiring in 2007 and helped lead the team of analysts that tracked al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, said her CIA colleagues have often felt defenseless in the public battles over national security failures. “I get the sense that all the lower-level people and some of the higher-ups too are fed up with the administration throwing them under the bus. Just start with 9/11 and go from there.”

The Agency absorbed savage PR body blows, some of them misdirected, for failing to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for allegedly providing faulty intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and for subjecting suspected terrorists to “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism for torture. “I know people are fed up,” Storer said. “But whether they’re prepared to do anything about it is another issue.”

The Agency’s first opportunity to “do anything about it” may come in July, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is expected to release a declassified version of its detailed and reportedly damning study on the CIA’s role in employing enhanced interrogation. In recent weeks, Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been squabbling with CIA Director John Brennan over allegations in the report, and whether the Agency illegally hacked into the committee’s computers and deleted some of its files.

Brennan has denied it; Feinstein is said to be furious. The Senate report is likely to be damaging. Twitter and Facebook could afford the Agency the means to respond quickly, thoroughly and publicly—and perhaps mitigate some of the damage.

“I don’t know on what level they plan to engage in that,” Harlow said, “but I would guess they’re going to have a lengthy statement of their own on whatever the issues are, and they can use social media to point people to those things.”

On Wednesday morning, CIA Director Brennan used Twitter and Facebook to link to a live webcast of his keynote address on “The Ethos and The Profession of Intelligence” during a security conference at Georgetown University in Washington.

So far, the Agency’s profiles on the two platforms have been decidedly anodyne. On Facebook, the CIA posted a lengthy policy statement warning that it will “delete as necessary comments [from the public] deemed inappropriate” and threatening to block scofflaws “without notice.” Twitter is generally more freewheeling, yet the Agency’s social media team seems to have taken pains to scrub its page—which boasts 629,000 followers—of replies, snarky and otherwise, to the CIA’s tweets.

The inaugural effort last Friday—“We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet”—presumably demonstrated that the CIA officially has a self-aware sense of humor. It was quickly followed by “We look forward to sharing great #unclassified content with you.”

Yet with the rise of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, once-classified information is now widely available to the public and the number of real secrets is shrinking. “Whether we like it or not, the things we’re involved with in the Information Age are part of the public debate, and if we have documents and people out there are requesting them, what’s the fastest way to do that?” said Mudd, noting that Twitter and Facebook are two credible answers. “The post-Cold War Age of Secrets is over.”