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US Soldiers Blocked From Blogging | The Nation

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US Soldiers Blocked From Blogging

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PETER O. ZIERLEIN

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Ari Melber
Ari Melber
Ari Melber is The Nation's Net movement correspondent, covering politics, law, public policy and new media,...

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Matthew Reece, a 24-year-old Army specialist, was killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle in Iraq in December. Within days, one of Reece's fellow soldiers blogged about the attack, recounting what he saw on the scene:

The words struck deep in to us as we were told "They've been hit by an IED! They have casualties!"; We were in such a mode that got things happening FAST, despite the chaos, confusion and worries.... From the sight of the vehicle and the way things looked inside, I can only imagine the chaos that had fallen upon the guys in that convoy.... We learned not too long after we had the vehicle back that SPC Reece had been killed. There was utter disbelief.... It seemed things had been going well lately, and with the end of our deployment nearing, a lot of us had felt that we would ride the rest of the deployment out without incident. But just like that everything changed...

Uploaded live from the front lines, the blog Eighty Deuce on the Loose in Iraq is written by Edward Watson, a 26-year-old sergeant in the 82nd Airborne. The popular site drew 72,000 views in its first year. The post about Reece, a heartfelt mix of reporting, mourning and warrior pride, soon swelled with reaction from friends back home. One person posted a comment about Reece's funeral, "held in the school gym where he had played basketball so many times," and relayed a few remarks made by Reece's widow, while noting that she was pregnant with their third child. The comment signed off, "May the rest of you all return home safe. Our prayers are with you all."

Enlisted soldiers' blogs provide an organic support network for military communities, coveted news from the battlefield, unfiltered assessments of the bleak prospects in Iraq and, sometimes, amplification of the Pentagon's official message. Watson emphasized, for example, that Reece was "trying to bring peace and freedom to a nation that has not seen such a thing," while his killers were part of "a faceless, cowardly enemy who will do anything to prevent such a bright future for their country." The language could have been drafted in Arlington. Yet the crackdown on soldiers' web activities is coming from the Pentagon.

The Defense Department has drastically restricted blogging and prevented many enlisted soldiers from visiting social networking sites. Last year, a policy banned thirteen popular websites, including YouTube, MySpace and BlackPlanet, from military computers. The restrictions would pre-empt bloggers like Watson, who started writing through a personal profile on MySpace. And this year the Air Force banned access to a military social networking site, TogetherWeServed.com. Pentagon officials say these measures are designed not only to save bandwidth but to save lives.

By enabling soldiers to share "information with friends and family members," an Army memo states, social networking poses a "significant operational security challenge." Operations Security (OPSEC) is the military's program to prevent soldiers from disclosing benign actions that might still provide useful intelligence to adversaries. The idea is that innocent bits of information, such as how many twilight pizzas are delivered to the Pentagon, could reveal classified material, like the imminence of a new operation.

MySpace is jammed with innocuous as well as damning information, and blogs detail many young people's lives in real time, presenting a minefield for OPSEC restrictions. Many soldiers write about their experiences online, within social networks and on independent blogs, which now top 2,000, according to an estimate by the military blogosphere site Milblogging.com. The Defense Department is experimenting with aggressive rules to rein them all in.

Maj. Ray Ceralde, who directs OPSEC, helped write regulations requiring soldiers to clear in advance potentially every blog post or personal e-mail with a supervisor. "The Internet, personal Web sites, blogs--those are examples of where our adversaries are looking for open-source information about us," he told the Army News Service. One Air Force briefing estimated that Al Qaeda members have created hundreds of false accounts on social networking sites, according to an April article on an official military site.

Yet while the regulations are strict, enforcement is not. "I never had any of my posts reviewed before I put them online," Watson said, noting that the Army probably "doesn't have the capacity" to review thousands of entries every day. After discovering the blog, Watson's platoon leader demanded to vet each post. Watson chose to stop writing instead. But soon he was able to restart the blog, he explained, with support from others in the "chain of command." For general policy, the Army Public Affairs office released a memo clarifying that approval is not required for every blog post, as long as the "Soldier blogger" follows OPSEC training.

Even when the web does expose problematic information about military operations, however, soldier blogs are not usually the source. According to the Army's audit, information breaches by blogs were dwarfed by breaches from the Defense Department's official sites. There were 1,813 breaches on the department's nearly 900 sites in 2006; the roughly 600 soldier blogs accounted for only twenty-eight breaches that year. (The audit was released in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)

It's really no surprise that soldier bloggers, who often post spirited war stories flanked by their company insignia and memorials for the fallen, are careful to follow the military's information security rules. "We give them a gun, we give them an M-16 and say go patrol Fallujah," says Noah Shachtman, who blogs about the military's Internet policies for Wired. "So why, if we are entrusting these folks with the power of life and death, can't we trust them with a blog? It just seems crazy."

The pressure on soldiers can still flow in other ways. One anonymous sailor told Stars and Stripes that after discussing controversial Navy topics on his blog, his superiors said it would "adversely" affect his career.

Apart from information security, of course, the Bush Administration has used Pentagon policies for information control, from secretly coordinating television pundits at home to cracking down on media in Iraq. In July the Marines expelled an embedded photographer from Iraq for blogging photos of American soldiers killed in a suicide attack, which also claimed the lives of twenty Iraqis affiliated with a US-backed militia. The anonymous photographer, who posts at Zoriah.et, says Marine officials claimed that he publicized "information the enemy could use"--an OPSEC rationale--as a pretext to stifle reporting that the military opposed. "While the military has made excuses that [the pictures] might upset the families [or] give away strategic information, the real reasons are clear--to hide the truth from us," argued an entry on Firedoglake, a popular political blog that has highlighted alternative reporting from Iraq. The post contended that by squelching disturbing coverage, the military can make the public "desensitized and diluted in our opposition to this occupation."

Phillip Carter, an Army reservist who writes the popular blog Intel Dump and finished a tour of Iraq in 2006, thinks that blogging security regulations are valid, but "certain overzealous Army officials would take those legitimate justifications and use them to support overregulation of soldier communication and blogs." Multimedia restrictions will recede over time, Carter predicts, because the next generation of officers is "less risk averse" toward communication technology. Other observers also sense a slow shift toward a more open military culture. Steve Field, a former Army spokesman who writes for the blog D-Ring, named after an outer corridor of the Pentagon, thinks that the ban on interactive sites revealed a military choice "to exert control over a space that is moving more and more toward sharing and free expression." And total control of the web is untenable, as some officials are already realizing.

The Air Force recently reversed its ban of the networking site TogetherWeServed.com, announcing that the site did not pose any special security risks. Some military brass even advocate active engagement online.

Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who commanded the 82nd Airborne in Iraq, is calling for more soldier blogging. He argues that instead of blaming the media for negative war coverage, the military should "empower" soldiers to blog and interact directly with the public and the press--even if it leads to some critical stories. In a recent blog entry for Small Wars Journal, Caldwell noted that the military takes many risks on the battlefield but becomes risk averse in "the informational domain." Meanwhile, one of the most prominent military leaders, Gen. David Petraeus, has plunged into the blogosphere from Baghdad to the Beltway. Last year, he e-mailed the popular conservative blog Blackfive to publicly thank "milbloggers" for "accurate" reporting on "the situation on the ground" in Iraq, while crediting them for following "legitimate operational security guidelines."

It's not surprising that the Defense Department has reacted negatively to soldier blogging. The military is a strenuously hierarchical institution, with finely graded ranks and carefully managed authority. Social networks create new openings for soldiers to step outside that hierarchy, even while deployed, and share their perspective to large and strategically important audiences. That gives military planners pause. Yet isn't it axiomatic that soldiers are entitled to exercise the freedoms they are willing to die for? It was that principle, coupled with antiwar activism, that drove America's last successful popular effort to amend the Constitution, to grant suffrage at the age of enlistment. Today's soldiers have much more modest requests. They want to network with new people, commune with friends and family, and share their stories with anyone out there who wants to listen. Pentagon leaders should be first in line.

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