Gingerly, The Security Side Of The Government Explores Twitter

Limited to just 140 words at a time, even Richard Holbrooke couldn't say all that much. But Twittering has two undeniable democratic features, at least from the standpoint of public relations officials. Effective Twittering can create the illusion that a senior government official is closer to the masses. And perhaps just as importantly, good Twittering can humanize decision makers. Government agencies are experimenting with the transformational media platform at their own pace -- especially those dealing with National Security. Twitter users tend to fit the "connector" profile, popularized from science literature by Malcolm Gladwell. They develop power and influence through building their personal and professional networks, aggregating and sharing information as they go along. It's a tempting elite audience to reach.

Today, the Department of Defense unveiled a new website that prominently includes links to official Defense twitter feeds and a variety of social media.

Though the Department of Defense may soon restrict access to Twitter across its platforms, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweets whenever he wants. For those trying to understand his thinking, some of his tweets can be illuminating. He has written tweets on the Pentagon's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, apparently in response to questions sent directly to his account. He wrote last week that he is reading Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, a well-reported and critical account of American policy drift in Iraq and Afghanistan.

GovTwit, a site that monitors government users, lists 145 accounts directly related to the Department of Defense. Public affairs officers for military brigades in Afghanistan, Europe, the Pacific and Iraq all use Twitter to communicate, as does the PAO for the Navy's Master Chief Petty Officer; one of the several Twitter accounts linked to the large public affairs staff in Afghanistan tweets the official Defense Department casualty press releases. Price Floyd, the principal deputy secretary of defense for public affairs, shares his favorite blogs and asks readers for their reactions to news articles about the Pentagon. Last week, he wrote: "Afghan elections are less than a week away. Let me know how you think it will turn out. Will it impact our mission there, or not?"  Floyd is the point person beyond the DoD's new social media push.

A Pentagon review of security and Twitter and other social media sites will be finished by the end of August, with recommendations due in September.

(Across the pond, Twitter has become a bit of a fetish for the U.K. Ministry of Defence, which encourages soldiers to tweet, reasoning that it is a safe and inexpensive way for those deployed overseas to keep in touch with their friends, family and community.)

Several government agencies mine Twitter for intelligence nuggets, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, which banned its employees from accessing their personal Twitter accounts on the job two weeks ago. The ODNI has a dormant Twitter account. A spokesperson said that communication plans are under development.

The U.S. Secret Service was surprised to learn last week that it has an official account, apparently created by specialists at the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service and other agencies monitor Twitter to anticipate and shape its communications strategy, as the Air Force learned how to do when dealing with the fallout over its Air Force One p.r. flight mistake. DHS's Transportation Security Agency is particularly active on Twitter, and a senior manager there, Neil Bonner (Twitter handle @irishprince), regularly tweets on TSA developments. Several DHS contract employees regularly tweet about their jobs. A favorite topic: why the White House hasn't yet appointed a cybersecurity czar. Although the National Security Council has at least four people in its press shop, it does not, so far as I can tell, tweet.

White House officials say they have more plans for Twitter but wouldn't specify them. New media czar Macon Phillips did not respond to e-mails. Last week, the administration attempted an experiment in viral fact-checking, using David Axelrod's identity (apparently, he's the White House-r that Democrats trust the most, aside from the President) in an e-mail asking recipients to forward it to friends. It probably wasn't lost on officials that a tweet from Axelrod could be read by a million or more people -- instantly. So far, the only senior White House official who maintains an account is deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton. And that's just to monitor his charges.