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The CIA's Twitter #fail

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,CIA,National Security,Twitter,Technology,Social Media

Carl Colby grew up in a family where no one talked about what dad did. Even family outings were mysterious.

"We'd go somewhere -- family trip on the weekend, picnic basket in the back -- and he'd meet somebody. Have a conversation, deliver something," Carl recalls in the fascinating documentary, "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby."

Spooks weren't the only thing the CIA ran undercover. For years, agency headquarters in McLean, Va., had no identifying markings. That was perhaps the height of spy silliness -- pretending a major government activity didn't exist.

How times have changed. Now a road sign points out the George Bush Center for Intelligence, the official name of the headquarters building. CIA.gov is one of the government's most visited websites. And the agency tweets. For real.

In 2012, a fake Twitter account appeared online using the handle @US_CIA. The comments were pretty wacky. Ran one post: "Dear Ayatollah @khamenei_ir, please consider tweeting in English. Our sole Arabic speaking NED analyst is out on vacation this week. Thanks!"

The CIA eventually asked Twitter to pull the account. "I hate to break it to our mass of potential Twitter followers -- but the CIA is still not on Twitter," agency spokesman Preston Golson told the Washington Post. "We prefer to keep our daily musings to ourselves. Perhaps someday you'll be able to read official tweets from Langley, but until then, people can do the old-fashioned thing and check out our Web page."

That changed on June 6 when the agency began tweeting under the less-than-clandestine handle @CIA. Its inaugural message: "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."

And, people are listening in. @CIA already has over 700,000 followers. That's not in the league as Katy Perry (54 million followers), but for a federal agency, that's quite a crowd.

The CIA's attempt to be Twitter-cool sparked a cottage industry of mocking, parody tweets bearing the hashtag #betterciatweets.

It is all good fun and games, until one remembers: Those our tax dollars at work. That's enough reason to stop laughing.

Social networks are a powerful instrument of modern communication. Government certainly should make use of this important technology. Yet most federal agencies are truly dreadful in how they employ these tools.

The White House, like the majority of agencies, uses social networks simply to pump out endless streams of mini-press releases, photo-op moments and banal chatter.

Some, such as the State Department, debase the instrument with meaningless acts of hashtag diplomacy like the campaign #UnitedForUkraine. (That toothless and self-indulgent campaign -- launched as violence spiked, tanks rolled and Russia seized Crimea -- left many veteran diplomats scratching their heads and wondering what -- or if -- the folks in Foggy Bottom could be thinking.)

And then there are agencies, like the CIA, that dabble in just acting stupid on Twitter.

When governments go online with official Twitter accounts, those doing the tweeting should have a clear mission, a valid purpose and an efficient and effective plan for giving taxpayers value for the money spent on the project.

For example, government Twitter feeds can be a great tool for effective risk communication — telling the public something important and what they should do about it. Twitter can also be useful in generating serious conversations about important issues.

Yet our government is doing very little of this well online.

The CIA's venture into the social networking world is a colossal embarrassment thus far. It does, however, reveal something that Washington hoped to keep secret: that it remains fundamentally unsavvy about how to use social networking to advance policy -- rather than political -- goals.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner

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