Online Personas and Congress

I’ve been meaning to return to our government’s contracting for persona software for a while. Last week RawStory had a good story providing details of the persona management contract the Air Force put out for bid. RS reveals that the contract was awarded to Ntrepid, a firm in LA with the kind of website that screams “cover.” And it has this from CENTCOM’s digital media engagement team.

According to Commander Bill Speaks, the chief media officer of CENTCOM’s digital engagement team, the public cannot know what the military wants with such technology because its applications are secret.

“This contract,” he wrote in reference to the Air Force’s June 22, 2010 filing, “supports classified social media activities outside the U.S., intended to counter violent extremist ideology and enemy propaganda.”

Speaks insisted that he was speaking only on behalf of CENTCOM, not the Air Force “or other branches of the military.”

While he did reveal who was awarded the contract in question, he added that the Air Force, which helps CENTCOM’s contracting process out of MacDill, has even other uses for social media that he could not address.

It’s secret, Sparks says, even the stuff that gets contracted openly.

In a post that looks like pushback against the concerns raised in the RS story, Jeff Stein has the same spokesperson reassuring us that these Cyberwar tactics won’t be directed against us.

Centcom spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks acknowledged in an interview last week that the Air Force had a contract for the Persona Management Software, but denied it would be deployed against domestic online protesters.

“The contract, and the Persona management technology itself, supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language Web sites to enable CENTCOM to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the U.S.,” Speaks told SpyTalk. “The contract would more accurately be described as supporting U.S. Central Command, rather than the Air Force — the Wing here at MacDill provides contracting support for us — efforts.”

Speaks said the software would “absolutely” not be used against law-abiding Americans.

Only, it looks like Stein asked the obvious follow-up question and got something less reassuring.

Update: Speaks adds, “The phrase [law-abiding] suggests that we might use it against Americans who are not law-abiding. The truth is that these activities are not directed towards Americans, without qualification.”

And how do they know that? Do they refuse to interact online with anyone whose IP address shows them to be in the US? Our Cyberwar folks do know that the InterToobz are global, don’t they? I feel like this gets us back to the old reverse targeting problems with the government’s replacement to FISA, with a very easy loophole to not “direct” fake personas at US persons, but to influence them with fake personas nevertheless.

Which brings me back to the point I always return to in these discussions: to the evidence that DOD generally is hiding its Cyberwar programs from Congress, and the Air Force in particular has issued strict guidelines prohibiting its people from telling Congress about AF Special Access Programs.

The AP noticed something troubling in Michael Vickers’ response to the Senate Armed Services Committee questions on his nomination to be Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence: the government did not include descriptions of its cyberwar activities in the quarterly report on clandestine activities.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voiced concerns that cyber activities were not included in the quarterly report on clandestine activities. But Vickers, in his answer, suggested that such emerging high-tech operations are not specifically listed in the law — a further indication that cyber oversight is still a murky work in progress for the Obama administration.

Vickers told the committee that the requirement specifically calls for clandestine human intelligence activity. But if confirmed, he said, he would review the reporting requirements and support expanding the information included in the report.

Now, Vickers apparently portrays this as a matter of legal hair-splitting: since the law doesn’t explicitly require information on cyberwar activities, DOD didn’t give it.

But the story reminded me of something Steven Aftergood reported last month: the Air Force has explicitly prohibited anyone cleared into Air Force Special Access Programs from sharing any information on those programs with Congress.

The Air Force issued updated guidance (pdf) last week concerning its highly classified special access programs, including new language prohibiting unauthorized communications with Congress.


“It is strictly forbidden for any employee of the Air Force or any appropriately accessed organization or company to brief or provide SAP material to any Congressional Member or staff without DoD SAPCO [Special Access Program Central Office] approval.  Additionally, the Director, SAF/AAZ will be kept informed of any interaction with Congress.”  See Air Force Policy Directive 16-7, “Special Access Programs,” December 29, 2010.

Even if Congress had issued clear guidelines for limits on Cyberwar to protect Americans–which they haven’t–there would still be huge technical problems with those guidelines. But Congress can’t impose limits on activities they know nothing about. And it sure looks like our military has carved out an area that could very well hide its Cyberwar programs from the people who could try to limit them.

Until DOD ends this policy of secrecy, I think it much safer to assume that all of Commander Speaks’ reassurances ring hollow.

  1. msobel says:

    re:”And how do they know that? Do they refuse to interact online with anyone whose IP address shows them to be in the US?”

    I think there is an excellent opportunity here. Since the price of internet capable machines is getting so low, and there is a large population already being supported, the relatively progressive Humane societies could get together to help shape public opinion.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    The military’s whole approach to “cyberwar” is completely bogus. The more I’ve looked into this stuff, the more I realize it is just a big scam for the MIC.

    A few quick notes about Ntrepid. It appears from LinkedIn that Ntrepid is staffed by a bunch of Abraxas people, lead by Lance Cottrell. Lance Cottrell was the originator of, which was bought up by Abraxas.

  3. scribe says:

    Well, if nothing else you have to give the Air Force and its senior leaders credit. They recognize that in the new world, the raison d etre for the Air Force is under existential threat, so they decided to stake out a new territory for themselves and only themselves.

    Let me explain.

    The development of drone aircraft to deliver munitions is making and will make the manned combat aircraft at best superfluous and, more likely, obsolete. The historic path for officers rising in the ranks of the Air Force has been piloting, be it bombers or fighters, preferably in combat. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that no tranport pilot has ever been Chief of Staff of the Air Force and surely no navigator, bombardier, or electronics officer. And, along with the pilot primacy came the hypermacho world and worldview of the combat pilot, which have guided the Air Force and so much of our defense establishment since the early days of WWII.

    But drones make the combat pilot obsolete. You don’t even have to have perfect eyesight to fly a drone – just be a good video-game player. Oh, there will be transport planes to fly and the occasional helicopter to fly, but those needs for pilots can be met through existing Army and Navy programs.

    In short, the independent Air Force as a separate arm of service has pretty much lost its reason for existence.

    Ironically, this came about for much the same reason the Air Force first got a reason for its independent existence: the development of technology. In the 1930s, development of aviation technology and military doctrine created the need for massive fleets of aircraft, each plane with at least one pilot and the bombers crewed by up to a dozen men. This made an Air Force independent of the Army and Navy a reasonable resolution to the problem. (As a sidenote, the Soviets never developed a separate Air Force like ours, separating the functions – tactical air support and transport, strategic bombardment, and homeland air defense – into 2 1/2 separate sevices. The reasons for that stem from different experience and different doctrinal outlook, but are too lengthy to go into here.)

    In the last two decades, though, the development of drones have merely extended what had already been a trend in the US Air Force. That trend had been toward fewer planes crewed by very few men, often only a pilot. And the computers and technology the Air Force had helped pioneer, nurture and develop wound up taking the pilot out of the plane.

    So, now the Air Force, like any other bureaucratic entity, seeks to perpetuate its existence. They recognize they have a lot of experience with computers and decide to take over the field of computers for themselves. By walling their activities off in Special Access Programs they not only evade Congressional oversight or even inquiry, but also keep the Army and Navy away from the new territory they’ve staked out for themselves.

    In so many words, this is a bureaucratic battle for organizational existence. That it takes the form of turning on the American people should be no surprise – that has been rampant in the military for at least a decade and this is just its latest manifestation.

    • shaw53 says:

      This sounds right. Fiefdoms secretly expanding influence and power with the smokescreen of national security. It is inevitable that Big Brother will fragment into many “Little Brothers” as many MIC bureaucracies compete for who has the best spyware system…

      Of course software companies will supply the crap fertilizing this extensive landscape. We citizens of course will be the recipients of the largesse that grows.

      • Gitcheegumee says:

        Probably lots of software companies will be in Colorado attending the mid March Fusion Center conference:

        National Fusion Center Conference

        Thank you you for your interest in the 2011 National Fusion Center Conference. The conference has exceeded its registration capacity and registration has closed … – Cached – Similar

        • Gitcheegumee says:

          Just for the record, the conference begins on the Ides of March,fwiw.s/

          “The Ides of March was a festive day dedicated to the god Mars and a military parade was usually held….” Wikipedia


  4. PeasantParty says:

    RS reveals that the contract was awarded to Ntrepid, a firm in LA with the kind of website that screams “cover.”

    Why does this smell bad and stinks like HB Gary?

    Oh! I know. Shhhh! Can’t tell ya cause it’s secret. We certianly can’t have our leaders understanding this. They may find out they are being blackmailed or sumpin.

  5. MadDog says:

    …Even if Congress had issued clear guidelines for limits on Cyberwar to protect Americans–which they haven’t–there would still be huge technical problems with those guidelines. But Congress can’t impose limits on activities they know nothing about…

    Speaking of this topic, the CIA’s website has been down now for a 2nd day. And it’s still down!

    I guess that’s one sure way of ensuring Congress “can’t impose limits on activities they know nothing about.”

  6. jerryy says:

    In that last sentence “And it sure looks like our military has craved out an area that could very well hide …” I think you meant ‘carved out’ although they do crave such things.

  7. kbskiff says:

    Something to consider.

    While MacDill is an AF special operations base and it appears the AF is the end user of the software we should not rule out that it is actually the Coast Guard using this software to engage social media in the USA. They are the only service allowed to conduct operations in the USA proper without violating what is left of Posse Comitatus.

    It is no coincidence that most Fusion Centers were situated along the coast. In Charleston, South Carolina the USCG is in charge of DHS operations.

    Google “Project Seahawk”, it was the pilot project started by earmarks from Lindsey Graham to fight so called “fifth columnists”.

    My guess is the US Coast Guard is is charged with domestic surveillance duties.

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      Something else to consider…is there any insurance on any of these DHS operations?

      And who would underwrite it?

      • Gitcheegumee says:

        What was AIG “insuring” for all those black budget networks …even those “Agency” APA shrinks need insurance and other $ervice$ It’s a highly “diversified” business when we discuss black budget networks, isn’t it? … › Discuss – Cached

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      FDL Talks Intelligence Contracting with Tim Shorrock

      By: emptywheel Wednesday July 21, 2010 7:00 am

      The Washington Post has been turning lots of heads this week with a big series on intelligence contracting. But we here at FDL have been talking about it for years, not least when we hosted Tim Shorrock–who wrote the book on intelligence contracting, Spies for Hire–for a book salon two years ago.In light of all the attention focused on the issue this, week, I asked Shorrock to come back to talk to use about the series, the problems with contracting, and some other issues the WaPo didn’t hit.

      As I pointed out on Monday, one thing Shorrock emphasized was the degree to which the contractors are partnering with the government to develop longterm strategy.

      Shorrock describes, for example, [Mike] McConnell’s key role in the formation of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), a trade organization that serves as a bridge between large intelligence contractors (like Booz Allen, SAIC, Computer Sciences Corporation, and ManTech) and the officers from CIA, NSA, and DHS who join them on the board of the organization. “INSA,” Shorrock explains, “is one of the only business associations in Washington that include current government officials on their board of directors.” Shorrock describes how INSA worked with the DNI (back when John Negroponte was DNI and McConnell was head of INSA and a VP at Booz Allen) to foster information sharing in the intelligence community–including with contractors. He reports that, for the first time in 2006, INSA’s contractors were consulted on the DNI’s strategic plans for the next decade. And Shorrock describes one intelligence veteran wondering “if INSA has become a way for contractors and intelligence officials to create policy in secret, without oversight from Congress.”

      McConnell, after nurturing this enhanced relationship between contractors and government intelligence services, ascended to serve as DNI. He was, Shorrock points out, “the first contractor ever to be named to lead the Intelligence Community.” Once confirmed, McConnell immediately buried a report assessing the practice of outsourcing intelligence. And he worked to further expand the ties between government spying and its contractors.

      NOTE: This is the intro to a book salon done here and it is most excellent and well worth a review by those who have perhaps not seen it previously.

  8. bobschacht says:

    Well, I guess that takes care of Congressional oversight, doesn’t it. “We can’t tell you, it’s secret.” Its not as if Congress has never dealt with secret programs before. But then, Congress has given up its Constitutional prerogatives on many fronts lately, claiming to have them but failing to exercise them.

    Bob in AZ