The explosion of social media has enabled government officials to share more information than ever before with the stroke of a thumb on a phone, but the boost in communication has raised more questions and security concerns than can fit in 140 characters.
In the past two years, websites such as Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr have empowered lawmakers to discuss experiences that were once shrouded in secrecy, such as Congressional delegation trips to hostile nations and war zones. But the line between what is appropriate to share — and when — has become increasingly blurred, and by and large, there is no official or monolithic guide regulating social media use for Members and their staffs.
“This has always been a problem, and it’s probably becoming more of a problem with the advent of real-time communication,” a former senior Defense Department official said about the use of social media. “And this obsessive-compulsive desire people have to share every minute detail of their lives, even it when it goes against common sense, like protecting their own security.”
This lack of precedent or rule has tested the boundaries on how the mainstream media can report on events that once were unreportable in real time and has left some communications staffers scrambling. In February 2009, then-House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) live-tweeted a CODEL’s travels through Iraq. Last April, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul posted photographs to its official Flickr page of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Afghanistan with a Senate GOP delegation, breaking the news that he was there.
And last week, a top House Republican leadership aide posted photos to his Twitter account of a government plane with its tail number visible, as well an image of a flight route from Istanbul to Doha, Qatar.
According to TweetCongress.com, 157 Democrats, 228 Republicans and two Independents have Twitter accounts. The vast majority of elected officials have Facebook pages. But interviews conducted by Roll Call with multiple government agencies and Congressional offices with Members who travel with security details indicate that the social media policies are often left to be shaped by individual offices with almost no specific guidance.
Most Congressional aides, who requested anonymity in order to discuss delicate security questions, said the biggest priority when their bosses travel to foreign countries is ensuring that their destinations are not announced in advance. Many press teams will release information once a lawmaker has left a city or has returned to the United States. Last week, for example, staffers for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) posted blog entries to speaker.gov about his trip to Brazil, but the posts were not made in real time from his location.
Other staffers indicated that before a CODEL leaves the country, the State and Defense departments include a rough “outline [of] what you should and shouldn’t be doing in terms of telecommunications” as part of their informational nation briefings, one Congressional aide said.
But an official for the State Department indicated it is deliberately generic when issuing social media guidelines.
“They’re designed to be broad when it comes to social media because we’re looking to use these tools to promote our policy goals, and because the nature of the medium itself,” a State Department official said. “The restrictions that we do have on content are the same as they are in the non-Internet world.
“We’ve made the decision that there is sometimes a tension there but it’s a choice worth making engaging on these platforms because we want to talk with and engage with people in the places where they want to talk with us,” the official added.
But that has not stopped some from questioning the wisdom of sharing too much information. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, Brad Dayspring, used his Twitter account to post loose itineraries, photos of locations and flight paths as he was travelling with his boss on a CODEL last week. Cantor’s office declined to comment for this story, but Dayspring ceased tweeting his personal travelogue and observances from the trip when a Roll Call reporter began retweeting them.
“Everybody just needs to be smart about it, in that our enemies do study our patterns, so you want to be thinking about possible concerns, repercussions — if not for your trip, then for future trips,” the former Defense official said.
It’s a fine line between keeping constituents in the loop and tipping off those who might wish to harm lawmakers traveling abroad.
“From a security standpoint, the risk-reward of getting a news story of what you’re doing, it’s always better to land on the side of the risk and protect your boss, even if means waiting a day to get the news story out,” a Senate aide said.
The Department of Defense declined multiple requests for comment.
But the United States Navy, which often receives Congressional visitors, has its own communications guidelines, which it provides to its own personnel as well as visitors.
“We’ve tried to make that policy the same as it is in personal communications,” Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said. “The same way that you wouldn’t relay over the phone future ship activities ... we tell our folks that they shouldn’t do that on social media as well.”
Servello said the guidelines, which discourage communicating information about things such as scheduled movements of Navy assets, Navy personnel or visitors, are an attempt to maintain safety.
Servello stressed that the Navy does not attempt to censor visitors’ communications. Instead, visitors are often encouraged to discuss their experiences on social media platforms as long as they preserve operational security.
Secret Service spokesman Max Milien said the Secret Service leaves it to the discretion of other agencies and offices when it comes to protecting information on social media platforms. “Individual agencies have their own policies regarding these topics,” Milien said, explaining that visitors are informed of operational security procedures. “We rely on our partners that the operational security is adhered to.”
Current and former Congressional aides stressed that they are proactive in protecting the identity of Members’ details, often requesting photos of the personnel or cars used by lawmakers be removed from media sites.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.