How Dangerous Is a Terrorist with a Twitter Handle?

There's an effort afoot in Congress to kick terrorists off Twitter. But the government's spies aren't so sure.

Sensational reports in the Guardian and Washington Post recently blew the lid off of the National Security Agency's (NSA) electronic surveillance efforts, which have harvested everything from phone calls to Facebook posts for intelligence purposes.

Curiously, Twitter still appears outside the grasp of the NSA's PRISM program, which gathers information from major U.S. Internet companies. But a group of lawmakers are concerned that the popular microblogging service has become too hospitable an environment for terrorist groups. The platform hosts a number of official feeds for terrorist groups, including Somalia's al-Shabab, the North African al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, the Taliban, and Hamas.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who currently serves as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, is looking to curtail terrorist activity on Twitter. Poe is mindful of free speech concerns, but believes terrorist organizations are not entitled to the same free speech protections. As he argued last year, after watching Hamas use the platform for propaganda purposes during its November war with Israel, "Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists."

First Amendment activists will almost certainly cry foul. But they will not be alone: This would be one of their rare moments of harmony with the U.S. intelligence community, which has used Twitter feeds of extremists to monitor their messaging for strategies, tactics, and policies. America's spies also monitor the feeds of extremist personalities and groups to see who follows them and who sympathizes with them, with the goal of identifying potential security threats at home or abroad. In fact, Twitter has made it possible for official bodies to interact with a banned group -- even if those interactions haven't been pleasant.

So while there is no evidence as of yet Twitter has been mined by PRISM -- other classified programs may exist, of course -- the intelligence community exploits it in other important ways. One former official at the National Security Agency notes, "Twitter is an incredible source to learn what these groups are doing. The FBI, CIA, and NSA not only get a lot of intelligence from Twitter, but there is also a lot of manipulation going on."

Given its usefulness, the former official argues that any initiative designed to constrain terrorist Twitter activity will need to be coordinated closely with the intelligence community.

Legislators have already heard as much from the intelligence community. And they also have been advised that they need to be realistic. They can't block every tweep with an extremist view from accessing the platform -- that would, as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it, devolve into an interminable game of "Whack-A-Mole." That's why Poe and his colleagues are looking for more defined policies that allow for free expression, but are also consistent with U.S. counterterrorism policies.

One idea the congressmen are considering is enforcing existing laws that would ban the official Twitter feeds of designated terrorist groups. There is a sound legal basis for this: Hezbollah's al-Manar TV and Hamas's al-Aqsa TV have been designated by the U.S. Treasury as terrorist entities, which means they are banned from operating in the United States. While there was some debate over the legality and optics of the moves, both media outlets were ultimately designated because they were owned by, or acting on behalf of, designated terrorist organizations. The designation package is classified, but it is a good bet that Treasury also had evidence that they provided technological and material support to the terrorist groups that spawned them.

Despite their terror designation, al-Manar TV and al-Aqsa TV both maintain Twitter feeds -- further underscoring the current disconnect in U.S. policy. The television channels were designated because they are the media arms of Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet, the Twitter feeds -- also, arguably, a media arm of both groups -- are somehow legal?

How the U.S. government's bureaucracy arrives at a policy that squares this circle will ultimately be the responsibility of legislative counsel, and perhaps other lawyers on the federal payroll. But Twitter's own terms of service could also settle it. The company's "Basic Terms" clearly notes, "You may use the Services only if you can form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction."

Since terrorists are "barred from receiving services" from the United States, this suggests that they cannot legally open Twitter accounts. Why Twitter hasn't taken action is unclear. It did, however, shutter one account tied to the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab earlier this year, because of "specific threats of violence against others." However, the group quickly opened a new one.

Short of that vague guidance, Twitter's terms of service do not rule out unofficial terrorist feeds, or what we might call "booster feeds," run by anonymous individuals who simply have an affinity for these violent groups. And if the official sites are taken down -- either by Twitter or by a mandate from the U.S. government -- there will only be booster feeds left.

As York explains, "any effort to rid Twitter of official feeds will only spawn more unofficial feeds." And those feeds would undoubtedly continue to disseminate the same propaganda.

York questions whether it's worth the trouble, but legislators are not so sure. Poe still wants to do something: "We should not be giving free reign to terrorists to use American companies to spread their message of hate and violence at will," he said in an emailed statement.

Legislators are expected to wrangle over the merits of such a move, and the debate will undoubtedly be influenced by the recent revelations about the NSA's electronic surveillance programs. In the meantime, 140-character opinions will likely not be in short supply.


National Security

Rice and the Russians

Will Obama's new national security advisor play nice and get along with Moscow?

The recent appointments of Susan Rice as the U.S. national security advisor and Samantha Power as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations have generated a good deal of attention, a signal of a new direction in a second-term administration -- one that reflects President Barack Obama's personal preferences and establishes a new balance within the foreign and security policy division of his administration. When transitions of this magnitude happen, outside countries take note. And even though policy on important issues is made personally by the president, nuances and personal flavor can be important enough to affect the practical diplomacy with other countries, Russia in particular.

Obama's early reset policy toward Russia was crafted by Michael McFaul, then special advisor to the president and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. While McFaul formally reported to Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, it was his direct interaction with the president that allowed Washington to walk out of the woods where President George W. Bush's policy had abandoned Russia, and steer the relationship toward achieving key U.S. policy goals on Afghanistan, Iran, and nuclear disarmament.

During Obama's first administration, Russia policy was very much driven by the NSC, with McFaul as its principal architect. This created some problems with the secretary of state: Hillary Clinton was not really part of Russia policymaking, and though she was a loyal implementer of the reset approach, her heart was never in it. This, alongside some personality issues, complicated her relations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Not that Clinton cared much, apparently.

John Kerry's appointment as Clinton's successor at the State Department has improved the atmosphere of U.S.-Russia diplomacy. Caustic exchanges, in which Clinton always sought to have the last word, have already become a thing of the past. Kerry, whose portfolio includes the U.S.-Russia dialogue on Syria, is very focused on the main subject and leaves no time for side orders or the general philosophy of international relations. Kerry's interaction with Lavrov is as good as can be hoped for, at least in the current context of the political relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Thomas Donilon, who succeeded Jones in 2010 and is now departing, has been seen by Moscow as a serious counterpart. While the relationship between the national security advisor at the White House and the secretary of Russia's Security Council has not been close for many years (with the exception of the early 2000s when Sergei Ivanov managed to build a rapport with Condoleezza Rice), Donilon's visit to Moscow this April was pronounced a success. It effectively ended the long pause in high-level U.S.-Russia dialogue that had lasted during the election seasons in both countries. Those who had met Donilon before, like Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's former NATO ambassador and current deputy prime minister, appreciated his personality and his style.

Donilon's successor, however, presents different issues in the relationship. Susan Rice is best known in Russia for her role in persuading Obama to change, rather abruptly, his policy course on Libya in 2011. The U.S. decision to support military intervention in support of the anti-Qaddafi rebels -- contradicting the advice of then Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- came as an unwelcome surprise to Moscow. To perform that feat, Rice joined forces with Samantha Power, then a senior member of the NSC staff and now Rice's successor as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Together, Rice and Power stand for a more muscular policy of humanitarian interventionism, which the Kremlin sees as a means to promote U.S. global domination.

After Obama's reelection, Moscow was bracing for the potential elevation of Rice as secretary of state, but now it has to deal with her as national security advisor. Unlike her near namesake Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice never delved in Soviet or Russian studies, and the Cold War is history as far as she is concerned. On the other hand, during her time at the United Nations, Rice often had to argue with the Russian envoy to the world body, Vitaly Churkin, but at least she knows the Kremlin's position on world issues firsthand. She is herself a known quantity to the Russian delegation. At the White House, Russia-related issues will probably take only a moderate amount of Rice's time, but on issues such as Syria or ballistic missile defense she will surely weigh in.

This may well complicate things in U.S.-Russia diplomacy. Historically, under Obama, Russia policy has been generated in the White House, but more recently Kerry and the State Department have regained ground. Compared with Jones and Donilon, Rice looks more ambitious, more active, and more publicity-prone. She is also the president's clear favorite and has his ear. In the U.S. national security elite -- a virtually all-male, somewhat older team -- she stands out as someone who might want to emerge on top. Of course, Obama is the decider in his administration, but as the Libya episode has demonstrated, Rice may provide him with the key ingredients for decision-making.

At this juncture, these are just expectations. The U.S.-Russia relationship stands at a crucial point. The meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the margins of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, is only a few days away. Between that summit and the next one planned in conjunction with the G-20 gathering in early September in St. Petersburg, it will be made clear whether the two leaders can establish a productive relationship to last through the remainder of Obama's term. Rice will have a role in achieving the outcome. As to Samantha Power, Vitaly Churkin will continue to have a worthy sparring partner at the United Nations.