The incidents — perhaps more embarrassing than damaging — served to underscore the uneasy relationship between the national security community and social media. At the White House and the National Security Council, most staffers are not permitted to access Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites from their office computers or government-issued mobile phones.
Administration officials said the restrictions are aimed at preventing staffers from downloading malware onto government networks or accidentally uploading sensitive material onto public networks. The rules also serve to discourage White House aides from conducting business on networks that will not archive their communications as required under the Presidential Records Act.
Only those staffers who need access as part of their official responsibilities, such as the press division, are permitted to log in from the office, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who is among the few with an official Twitter account.
But the restrictions have run into the realities of the modern world, in which news often breaks first on social networks while public officials, journalists and policy experts debate the ramifications in real time. Administration officials often find themselves out of the loop, unable to react to the news or take part in the conversation.
“Certainly it was the case that in the NSC, we were not where we needed to be in terms of engaging people on Twitter,” said Tommy Vietor, a former NSC spokesman who left in the spring for private consulting and started tweeting prolifically. “It was very clear that social media was where a lot of protests were forming and conversations were happening.”
Shawn Brimley, who served at the Pentagon and the NSC from 2009 to 2012, learned that lesson the hard way. On the night in August 2011 when Libyan rebel forces began their march on Tripoli to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi, Brimley and his supervisor, Derek Chollet, were monitoring their personal Twitter feeds at home to follow breaking news and firsthand accounts from the region.
But when they called into the White House Situation Room, they learned that analysts there were not aware of the reports of gunshots in the Libyan capital. “We were ahead of what the Situation Room was seeing,” said Brimley, now at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
Brimley said they lobbied successfully to gain access at the White House to a Web site that reposts tweets, which NSC officials could read without logging in to Twitter.
The U.S. intelligence community has also developed a secure, internal network named eChirp that is patterned after Twitter and allows its analysts to weigh in on breaking news from across several agencies.