Use Twitter, Facebook Often? The CIA may be Watching


To all those social media mavens out there: the CIA is watching you.

It’s not just your cell phone calls they are listening to, the CIA is also  poring over tweets, Facebook  posts and chat rooms.

At the agency’s Open Source Center in Virginia, a team known affectionately  as the “vengeful librarians” follows 5 million tweets a day, and also pores over  newspapers, TV news channels, local radio stations and chat rooms — anything  overseas that anyone can access and contribute to openly.

From an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the  information, often in native languages. They cross-reference it with the local  newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they  build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White  House, giving a real-time peek, for example, at the mood of a region after  the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama  bin Laden or perhaps a prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for  revolt.

Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt  coming; they just didn’t know exactly when revolution might hit, said the  center’s director, Doug Naquin.

The center already had “predicted that social media in places like Egypt  could be a game-changer and a threat to the regime,” he said in a recent  interview with The Associated Press at the center. CIA officials said it was the  first such visit by a reporter the agency has ever granted.

The CIA facility was set up in response to a recommendation by the 9/11  Commission, with its first priority to focus on counterterrorism and  counterproliferation. But its several hundred analysts — the actual number is  classified — track a broad range, from Chinese Internet access to the mood on  the street in Pakistan.

While most are based in Virginia, the analysts also are scattered throughout  U.S. embassies worldwide to get a step closer to the pulse of their  subjects.


At CIA’s Open Source Center in Virginia, a team known affectionately as the  “vengeful librarians” follows 5 millions tweets a day, and also pores over  newspapers, TV news channels, local radio stations and chat rooms — anything  overseas that anyone can access and contribute to openly.

The most successful analysts, Naquin said, are something like the heroine of  the crime novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a quirky, irreverent computer  hacker who “knows how to find stuff other people don’t know exists.”

Those with a masters’ degree in library science and multiple languages,  especially those who grew up speaking another language, “make a powerful open  source officer,” Naquin said.

The center had started focusing on social media after watching the  Twitter-sphere rock the Iranian regime during the Green Revolution of 2009, when  thousands protested the results of the elections that put Iranian President Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad back in power.

“Farsi was the third largest presence in social media blogs at the time on  the Web,” Naquin said.

The center’s analysis ends up in President Barack Obama’s daily intelligence  briefing in one form or another, almost every day.

After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, the CIA followed Twitter to give  the White House a snapshot of world public opinion.

Since tweets can’t necessarily be pegged to a geographic location, the  analysts broke down reaction by languages. The result: The majority of Urdu  tweets, the language of Pakistan, and Chinese tweets, were negative.

China is a close  ally of Pakistan’s. Pakistani officials protested the raid as an affront to  their nation’s sovereignty, a sore point that continues to complicate  U.S.-Pakistani relations.

When the president gave his speech addressing Mideast issues a few weeks  after the raid, the tweet response over the next 24 hours came in negative from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, the  Persian Gulf and Israel,  too, with speakers of Arabic and Turkic tweets charging that Obama favored  Israel, and Hebrew tweets denouncing the speech as pro-Arab.

In the next few days, major news media came to the same conclusion, as did  analysis by the covert side of U.S. intelligence based on intercepts and human  intelligence gathered in the region.

The center is also in the process of comparing its social media results with  the track record of polling organizations, trying to see which produces more  accurate results, Naquin said.

“We do what we can to caveat that we may be getting an overrepresentation of  the urban elite,” said Naquin, acknowledging that only a small slice of the  population in many areas they are monitoring has access to computers and  Internet.

But he points out that access to social media sites via cellphones is growing  in areas like Africa,  meaning a “wider portion of the population than you might expect is sounding off  and holding forth than it might appear if you count the Internet hookups in a  given country.”

Sites like Facebook and Twitter also have become a key resource for following  a fast-moving crisis such as the riots that raged across Bangkok in April and  May of last year, the center’s deputy director said. The Associated Press agreed  not to identify him because he sometimes still works undercover in foreign  countries.

As director, Naquin is identified publicly by the agency although the  location of the center is kept secret to deter attacks, whether physical or  electronic.

The deputy director was one of a skeleton crew of 20 U.S. government  employees who kept the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok running throughout the rioting as  protesters surged through the streets, swarming the embassy neighborhood and  trapping U.S. diplomats and Thais alike in their homes.

The army moved in, and traditional media reporting slowed to a trickle as  local reporters were either trapped or cowed by government forces.

“But within an hour, it was all surging out on Twitter and Facebook,” the  deputy director said.

The CIA homed in on 12 to 15 users who tweeted situation reports and  cellphone photos of demonstrations. The CIA staff cross-referenced the tweeters  with the limited news reports to figure out who among them was providing  reliable information. Tweeters also policed themselves, pointing out when  someone else had filed an inaccurate account.

“That helped us narrow down to those dozen we could count on,” he said.

Ultimately, some two-thirds of the reports coming out of the embassy being  sent back to all branches of government in Washington came from the CIA’s open  source analysis throughout the crisis.

Sources: FoxNews, AP