The U.S. Army Protective Services Battalion at the Pentagon will track you down if you post mean tweets about generals on social media.
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WHEN THE CHAIR of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley enters into his scheduled retirement later this year, one of the perks will include a personal security detail to protect him from threats — including “embarrassment.”
The U.S. Army Protective Services Battalion, the Pentagon’s little-known Secret Service equivalent, is tasked with safeguarding top military brass. The unit protects current as well as former high-ranking military officers from “assassination, kidnapping, injury or embarrassment,” according to Army records.
Protective Services’s mandate has expanded to include monitoring social media for “direct, indirect, and veiled” threats and identifying “negative sentiment” regarding its wards, according to an Army procurement document dated September 1, 2022, and reviewed by The Intercept. The expansion of the Protective Services Battalion’s purview has not been previously reported.
The country’s national security machinery has become increasingly focused on social media — particularly as it relates to disinformation. Various national security agencies have spent recent years standing up offices all over the federal government to counter the purported threat.
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“The ability to express opinions, criticize, make assumptions, or form value judgments — especially regarding public officials — is a quintessential part of democratic society.”
“There may be legally valid reasons to intrude on someone’s privacy by searching for, collecting, and analyzing publicly available information, particularly when it pertains to serious crimes and terrorist threats,” Ilia Siatitsa, program director at Privacy International, told The Intercept. “However, expressing ‘positive or negative sentiment towards a senior high-risk individual’ cannot be deemed sufficient grounds for government agencies to conduct surveillance operations, even going as far as ‘pinpointing exact locations’ of individuals. The ability to express opinions, criticize, make assumptions, or form value judgments — especially regarding public officials — is a quintessential part of democratic society.”
Protective details have in the past generated controversy over questions about their cost and necessity. During the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s around-the-clock security detail racked up over $24 million in costs. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt ran up over $3.5 million in bills for his protective detail — costs that were determined unjustified by the EPA’s inspector general. The watchdog also found that the EPA had not bothered to “assess the potential dangers posed by any of these threats” to Pruitt.
Frances Seybold, a spokesperson for the Army Criminal Investigation Division, pointed The Intercept to a webpage about the office, which has been renamed the Executive Protection and Special Investigations Field Office. Seybold did not respond to substantive questions about social media monitoring by the protective unit.
The procurement document — published in redacted form on an online clearinghouse for government contracts but reviewed without redactions by The Intercept — begins by describing the Army’s need to “mitigate online threats” as well as identify “positive or negative sentiment” about senior Pentagon officials.
“This is an ongoing PSIFO/PIB” — Protective Services Field Office/Protective Intelligence Branch — “requirement to provide global protective services for senior Department of Defense (DoD) officials, adequate security in order to mitigate online threats (direct, indirect, and veiled), the identification of fraudulent accounts and positive or negative sentiment relating specifically to our senior high-risk personnel,” the document says.
The document goes on to describe the software it would use to acquire “a reliable social media threat mitigation service.” The document says, “The PSIFO/PIB needs an Open-Source Web based tool-kit with advanced capabilities to collect publicly available information.” The toolkit would “provide the anonymity and security needed to conduct publicly accessible information research through misattribution by curating user agent strings and using various egress points globally to mask their identity.”
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