By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leaders of a congressional subcommittee are urging the Department of Homeland Security to extensively monitor social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to detect "current or emerging threats."
The top Republican and Democrat on a House counter-terrorism subcommittee last month sent a letter to Homeland Security's intelligence chief encouraging department analysts to pore over huge streams of social media traffic.
Representatives Patrick Meehan and Jackie Speier said in the letter to Caryn Wagner, undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis, that they "believe it would be advantageous for DHS and the broader Intelligence Community to carefully parse the massive streams of data from various social media outlets to identify current or emerging threats to our homeland security."
Meehan, a Republican, is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's counter-terrorism and intelligence subcommittee. Speier is the panel's ranking Democrat.
The two lawmakers said such monitoring raises "privacy and civil liberties concerns" and suggested that the department issue guidelines which balance citizens' rights with the ability of analysts to identify threats.
Earlier this week, Homeland Security's National Operations Center published a long list of websites which they monitor for "situational awareness."
In an email to Reuters, Meehan said a hearing he had convened in December had "examined the evolving terrorist use of social media and effective intelligence and law enforcement responses."
Meehan added: "If terrorists are operating in Pakistan or communicating through social media sites like Facebook, we need to remain vigilant. Yet there are important civil liberties questions involving U.S. government monitoring of social media and Americans' Internet traffic. We are seeking answers on the Department's guidelines and procedures to ensure Americans' civil liberties are safeguarded."
Matthew Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman, said the department's operations center monitors social media only "within the clearly defined parameters articulated" in published department privacy guildelines.
Among websites on the center's favorites list were social media like Twitter, Facebook and My Space; video and photo sharing sites like Hulu, YouTube and Flickr; news and gossip sites like Huffington Post and Drudge Report; and sites like Cryptome and WikiLeaks which publish leaked documents.
Maureen Keith, a spokeswoman for Meehan, said the lawmakers' letter, dated December 16, had not been previously released.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; editing by Mohammad Zargham)