WASHINGTON, June 30 (UPI) -- The U.S. military is looking for a contractor to patrol cyberspace, watching for warning signs of forthcoming terrorist attacks or other hostile activity on the Web.
"If someone wants to blow us up, we want to know about it," Robert Hembrook, the deputy intelligence chief of the U.S. Army's Fifth Signal Command in Mannheim, Germany, told United Press International.
In a solicitation posted on the Web last week, the command said it was looking for a contractor to provide "Internet awareness services" to support "force protection" -- the term of art for the security of U.S. military installations and personnel.
"The purpose of the services will be to identify and assess stated and implied threat, antipathy, unrest and other contextual data relating to selected Internet domains," says the solicitation.
Hembrook was tight-lipped about the proposal. "The more we talk about it, the less effective it will be," he said. "If we didn't have to put it out in public (to make the contract award), we wouldn't have."
He would not comment on the kinds of Internet sites the contractor would be directed to look at but acknowledged it would "not (be) far off" to assume violent Islamic extremists would be at the top of the list.
The solicitation says the successful contractor will "analyze various Web pages, chat rooms, blogs and other Internet domains to aggregate and assess data of interest," adding, "The contractor will prioritize foreign-language domains that relate to specific areas of concern … (and) will also identify new Internet domains" that might relate to "specific local requirements" of the command.
Officials were keen to stress the contract covered only information that could be found by anyone with a computer and Internet connection.
"We're not interested in being Big Brother," said LeAnne MacAllister, chief spokeswoman for the command, which runs communications in Europe for the U.S. Army and the military's joint commands there.
"I would not characterize it as monitoring," added Hembrook. "This is a research tool gathering information that is already in the public domain."
Experts say Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaida use the Web for propaganda and fundraising purposes. Although the extent to which it is employed in operational planning is less clear, most agree that important information about targeting and tactics can be gleaned from extremists' public pronouncements.
Hembrook said the main purpose of the contract is to analyze "trends in information." The contractor will "help us find those needles in that haystack of information."
The solicitor says the contractor's team will include a "principal cyber investigator," a "locally specialized threat analyst" and a "foreign-speaking analyst with cyber investigative skills," as well as a 24/7 watch team.
The contractor will produce weekly written reports, containing "raw data and supporting analysis."
The addresses of the Web page sources will be "captioned under alias to preserve access," says the solicitation. Experts have noted in the past that publishing the addresses of some extremists' sites has led to them being attacked or moving. However, the contractor will "consider releasing specific (Web page addresses) on an as-needed basis … if explicit threat materials or imminent threat to personnel or facilities are discovered."
The contractor also will notify the command immediately "upon receipt of any and all stated or implied threats that contain timing and/or targeting information relating to personnel, facilities or activities, and to specifically designated areas of concern."
While declining to comment on the specific solicitation, Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that monitors Islamic extremist propaganda for clients including U.S. government agencies, said it was "common" for the military or other agencies to employ contractors "to support their own work on these issues."
"What most people don't get," he said, "is that (each agency or entity) has their own very specific requirements. … They are looking for one type of thing in particular."
Venzke explained that while an analyst for a big-city police department might be looking at extremist Web sites for certain kinds of information, their requirements would be different from those of intelligence analysts looking for evidence of trends in extremist targeting or ideology, which in turn would be different from those concerned -- like the Fifth Signal Command -- with force protection.
"There is some overlap," he said, "and you always have to work to minimize that, but generally, there are so many different … pieces you can look at … it's not duplication."