U.S. Military's Tweets Make a Comeback After `Cybervandalism'

Before it was hacked yesterday, the Twitter account of the U.S. military’s Central Command churned out mostly buzz-free tweets on its operations in the Middle East.

Nothing was much catchier than the frequently repeated: “Military Airstrikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.”

The attack by a group calling itself the CyberCaliphate took over the Twitter feed for about 30 minutes, filling it with praise for Islamic State militants and threats against the U.S. military. The episode made Central Command’s social media outlet world-famous and raised questions about its security.

“We’re back!” the command said on Twitter, attributing the account’s temporary suspension to “an act of cybervandalism.”

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said today that commercial networks were hacked, not Defense Department systems, and there’s no indication that the department’s internal networks were violated. No classified information was put at risk, the department said.

It was “not a big deal,” departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today in remarks at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

Even so, the hackers managed to use their 30-minute occupation of the Twitter feed to post pages of Pentagon directories listing the home addresses of some officers. The group also hacked into Central Command’s YouTube account.

The Pentagon pledged to keep tweeting while it tried to correct any security flaws and the FBI was investigating yesterday’s hacking.

Managing Risk

“Obviously, there is a risk in using social media,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. “But so, too, is there a risk in not using it. To ignore it -- to shut it down -- simply because someone with ill intent might exploit it would be to risk losing our share of an important conversation out there on national security issues.”

Defense Department webmasters in charge of more than 50 social-media accounts have been told to strengthen passwords and given tips to keep postings more secure, Colonel Steve Warren, another Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today. San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. said yesterday that the Pentagon had asked for its help with an account security issue.

Central Command -- which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including the fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS -- is no star by Twitter standards. While Justin Bieber has 59 million followers, Central Command’s account indicates it has about 121,000.

Since 2010

The command began using Twitter in 2010, when the Pentagon approved a policy authorizing the use of such social-media outlets while acknowledging security risks.

Like most Pentagon announcements, it was hardly the stuff of trending topics.

“This directive recognizes the importance of balancing appropriate security measures while maximizing the capabilities afforded by 21st-century Internet tools,” Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said in a statement at the time.

Since then, many defense officials have made Twitter a part of their daily routine. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, has a Twitter handle, which has inspired gently satirical postings on a feed by an otherwise unidentified “Fake Admiral Kirby.”

Central Command said it remains committed to using tools including Twitter to get its message out.

“Social media provides a unique method to communicate to people around the world and share information about our activities in our area of operations,” Air Force Colonel Patrick Ryder, a command spokesman, said in a statement. “It also allows us to be responsive to comments and questions about Centcom’s activities.”

Military Dog

The command’s Twitter feed offers a taste of military life along with videos of recent airstrikes in Iraq. It also retweets photos posted by the Pentagon and other military organizations, such as a Jan. 5 photo of a Marine wrestling with a military working dog as part of “controlled aggression training.”

Almost every government agency has a social-media presence. On the day of the hacking attack, the secretive National Counterintelligence and Security Center -- under Director of National Intelligence James Clapper -- opened its own Twitter account.

“We’ve said too much already!” the day’s only posting said.