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Spy Agency Chat Room Hate Speech Draws Hill Scrutiny
Intelligence committees ‘looking into’ classified chat rooms 'dumpster fire' of hate and pro-insurrection commentary
The House and Senate intelligence oversight committees are looking into hate speech that has flourished in spy agency chat rooms over the past five years, spokespersons there tell SpyTalk. The House Armed Services Committee is also “aware of these allegations and we are working with the relevant agencies to assess the claim," said Caleb H. Randall-Bodman, the panel’s spokesman.
Dan Gilmore, who worked in an administrative group overseeing internal chat rooms for the classified Intelink system for over a decade starting in 2011, says that by late in the third year of the Trump administration the system was afire with incendiary hate-filled commentary, especially on “eChirp,” the intelligence community’s clone of Twitter.
“I was the admin of this application and after a couple years, it became a dumpster fire” of hate speech directed at minorities, women, gays, transexuals and Muslims, Gilmore, a 30-year veteran of Navy and NSA cryptologic systems, wrote March 10 in an extraordinary public post on his own web site. Gilmore was an NSA contractor from 1999 until he was forced out last July “because I made someone look bad,” he wrote.
“Professionalism was thrown out the window, and flame wars became routine,” he said. In a SpyTalk interview last week, he said he “can’t quantify” the degree to which the hate speech in the chat rooms was representative of the IC workforce at large, but he wrote on his blog that “there were many employees at CIA, DIA, NSA, and other IC agencies that openly stated that the January 6th terrorist attack on our Capitol was justified.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee "is aware of and looking into the allegations,” which were reported exclusively by SpyTalk on March 11, committee spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said. “We have reached out to DoD and IC agencies." The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence also "is aware and concerned by these reports, and has asked for additional information," said committee spokeswoman Lauren French. Both declined to elaborate.
(IC is the acronym for the Intelligence Community, composed of 18 organizations, including two independent agencies, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, and the CIA. The FBI is also part of the IC.)
The FBI declined to comment. The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Senate Armed Services Committee did not respond to a request for comment. The National Security Agency, the ODNI, and Pentagon all declined to comment on the allegations.
The Pentagon’s silence runs counter to its very public stance on battling extremism in the ranks. No less than Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has expressed concern about right wing extremist sentiment in the military services. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, he ordered a so-called one-day stand down across the military for leadership to address the issue of extremism with troops. Since then, the department has issued new guidelines. While membership in an extremist organization, for instance, is not prohibited, taking part in activities on its part are. That extends to social media postings, where “liking” or sharing a post considering extremist or anti-government could result in some type of disciplinary action.
DoD also prohibits the use of a government communications system to support extremist activities or knowingly accessing Internet web sites or other materials that promote or advocate extremist activities, according to its Dec. 20, 2021 “Report on Countering Extremist Activity Within The Department of Defense.”
It’s not clear whether the prohibition would extend to military personnel at the NSA who can participate in Intelink’s classified chat rooms.
“Hate speech was running rampant on our applications,” wrote Gilmore, whose identity and credentials have been vouched for by another Pentagon intelligence contractor. “I’m not being hyperbolic. Racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamaphobic [sic], and misogynistic speech was being posted in many of our applications.”
Tara Lemieux, a senior cybersecurity assessor for the Defense Department who worked for the Intelink program from 2012 to 2016, corroborated much of Gilmore’s characterization of the chatter. She said she was “personally appalled that any language supporting the overthrow of our U.S. government—or offers support for January 6th Insurrection— is being permitted on Intelink services and horrified that those contractors and/or employees who’ve made these comments have not had their Top Secret Security Clearance and accesses immediately suspended.”
“The NSA is likely hoping this goes away,” Lemieux added. “This is unconscionable and the [US intelligence community] needs to take immediate and meaningful action, as there is no room for personal bias in matters of National Security.”
In the years before before President Donald Trump evinced sympathy for white supremacists and neo-Nazis, partisan political commentary in the Intelink channels was verboten, Lemieux said. “I…remember how quick we would react to pull content down that didn’t meet the standard acceptance. In years past, for example, they would jump through hoops with hair on fire if you talked about political candidates.”
CIA veterans have also told SpyTalk that partisan political talk in the office was rare until Trump took office and appointed former Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo as its director. Pro-Trump sentiment arose mostly in the action arms of the counterterrorism programs staffed largely by military veterans, they said.
Comments from other present or past IC personnel who read Gilmore’s post were overwhelmingly supportive.
“Thank you so much for speaking up! I’m a black female that worked at NSA and other IC elements,” wrote a woman who identified herself as “Mia.”
“As someone who witnessed your thankless work to throw water on the dumpster fire, all I can say is that your efforts were noted and appreciated by the rank & file,” said another, who identified himself as “Chris.” “The only thing that concerns me more than the routinized [sic] extremism you see in places it should never exist is the resounding silence from leadership.”
It’s doubtful the incendiary chatter on Intelink represents the larger IC workforce any more than Twitter’s echo chamber of outrage is a reflection of America at large. But there is a parallel, Gilmore says.
“I don't think there's nearly as many whack jobs in the IC as there are on Twitter,” he told SpyTalk in an interview. “The IC definitely weeds out the whack jobs. Unfortunately, once those people are in and they're given a microphone and a platform, a platform that is no longer moderated, then all of a sudden they're allowed to get away with what they think they can get away with then.
“They're like little children,” Gilmore added. “They test the boundary. They're like, ‘Can I get away with saying this?’ And they continued to do it over and over and over again.”
“I knew it was bad, but not that bad,” says Luis Rueda, who spent nearly 30 years in the CIA’s clandestine services division and stays in touch with former colleagues. “There are a bunch of hardline Trumpers in the I.C.,” he told SpyTalk. “A lot came to the fore during mask and vax mandates.” They included “both staff and contractors. They worked in the same units with virulent right wing people who talked about stolen elections, liberals, [George] Soros, etc.”
Rueda’s comments match the views of other concerned CIA and FBI veterans who have worked closely with U.S. special operations units.
Former FBI special agent Tom O’Connor, who spent 23 years in the bureau investigating domestic extremism, has found such developments unnerving.
“This would not be all that disturbing if the comments were not coming from former law enforcement and military,” he says, “people who I believe have or had the ability to view evidence and facts. Clearly many have bought into the rhetoric and disinformation.”
Michael German, a former FBI special agent who went undercover with white supremacist groups in the early 1990s, shares O’Connor’s concerns. He points to racist, misogynistic and other inappropriate comments in Customs and Border Protection chat rooms and a secret Facebook page discovered three years ago. It’s worrying to him that “persistent” white supremacist sentiment has seeped from the edges of Amrican society into the ranks and even top rungs of some law enforcement agencies. He calls the failure to crack down inexcusable.
The authorities “imagine this is some problem that requires giving law enforcement and military more power to scour social media, or to engage in some kind of broader investigative activity, rather than recognizing this racist activity is in plain sight,” German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, tells SpyTalk. “The people in these agencies know there's a problem because they're part of the systems where these hateful ideas are discussed.”
But Brian Murphy, a celebrated former FBI counterterrorism agent who served as head of DHS Intelligence and Analysis in the Trump administration—and later charged the agency with politicizing intelligence—called policing chat rooms “a bit tricky.”
“They have free speech rights, but how they comport themselves can get them in trouble,” he said in an email. “Put another way, in the public domain there are more restrictions. What they say internally, especially on 1-to-1 chats, is generally fine unless they are discussing committing crimes.”
While acknowledging the challenge of neutralizing hate speech in a nation founded on the bedrock principle of free speech—it’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution— many veteran IC personnel warn that something has to be done to root out bad actors in law enforcement and intelligence.
“My fear is that this will only get worse as we approach the 2022 and 2024 election cycle,” says O’Connor, a former head of the FBI Agents Association.
“The inability to follow facts and evidence has clearly migrated from the extreme to the mainstream,” he said.