Wednesday, May 02, 2007

 

The End of MILBLOGS?

(BUMPED UP)

[Welcome, Wired, Instapundit, and NRO Readers! There's a lot here on MILBLOGS. If you haven't visited before, please check out my Profiles, Welcome for New Visitors, and What makes me Dadmanly links upper left.]

Noah Shachtman, blogger and panelist for the upcoming MILBLOGGER Conference, does an excellent job reporting on some really bad news for MILBLOGGERS, over at Wired.

The bad news? The Army has seen fit to rewrite Army Regulation (AR) 530-1 Operations Security (OPSEC), upgrade it’s classification to For Official Use Only (FOUO), tie OPSEC to information excluded from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) access, and “put into law” draconian restrictions on all forms of electronic communications, including web logs (blogs), email, instant messaging (IM), and potentially even personal letters and other non-electronic communications.

Shachtman’s comprehensive report, along with a companion interview with the Regulations author Major Ray Ceralde, provides a chilling example of hyper-vigilance and military leader short sightedness in what could very well be the end of MILBLOGS as we have known them.

Here’s a little background on the controversy, courtesy of Shachtman:

Military officials have been wrestling for years with how to handle troops who publish blogs. Officers have weighed the need for wartime discretion against the opportunities for the public to personally connect with some of the most effective advocates for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the troops themselves. The secret-keepers have generally won the argument, and the once-permissive atmosphere has slowly grown more tightly regulated. Soldier-bloggers have dropped offline as a result.

Here’s what the regulation says, again, as reported by Shachtman, and the implications for Commanders and the MILBLOGGERS who try to operate under their command:

Army Regulation 530--1: Operations Security (OPSEC) [Link removed as reposted by Dadmanly] restricts more than just blogs, however. Previous editions of the rules asked Army personnel to "consult with their immediate supervisor" before posting a document "that might contain sensitive and/or critical information in a public forum." The new version, in contrast, requires "an OPSEC review prior to publishing" anything -- from "web log (blog) postings" to comments on internet message boards, from resumes to letters home.

Failure to do so, the document adds, could result in a court-martial, or "administrative, disciplinary, contractual, or criminal action."

Despite the absolutist language, the guidelines' author, Major Ray Ceralde, said there is some leeway in enforcement of the rules. "It is not practical to check all communication, especially private communication," he noted in an e-mail. "Some units may require that soldiers register their blog with the unit for identification purposes with occasional spot checks after an initial review. Other units may require a review before every posting."

But with the regulations drawn so tightly, "many commanders will feel like they have no choice but to forbid their soldiers from blogging -- or even using e-mail," said Jeff Nuding, who won the bronze star for his service in Iraq. "If I'm a commander, and think that any slip-up gets me screwed, I'm making it easy: No blogs," added Nuding, writer of the "pro-victory" Dadmanly site. "I think this means the end of my blogging."

I may have just violated Army Regulation in excerpting that portion of Shachtman’s report, and that’s one example of the potential insanity that will result from this new version of the AR.

The Army saw fit to upgrade the classification of the AR, to FOUO. By the actual regulation specifics, discloser of sensitive (but unclassified) information is a violation of the AR. Even repeating this information after it is already public or appearing in open source media is proscribed as a violation. This means, if military members refer to or mention any specific contents of the OPSEC AR itself, may be considered in violation of the AR and liable for punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Non-military can also be prosecuted criminally, according to the AR, although I don’t see how that would work in practice.

MILBLOGGERS will be understandably upset, alarmed, and angry. Shachtman already received my reaction, as well as a powerful response from Blackfive:

"This is the final nail in the coffin for combat blogging," said retired paratrooper Matthew Burden, editor of The Blog of War anthology. "No more military bloggers writing about their experiences in the combat zone. This is the best PR the military has -- it's most honest voice out of the war zone. And it's being silenced."

Any long-time reader here knows I lean very heavily to the side of safer rather than sorry in matters of OPSEC (see here, here, here, and here). That drastically limits what I’m willing to report or commit to pixel from my (admittedly limited) combat experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) III, and my traffic history bears testimony.

Nevertheless – OPSEC could be applied to restrict all manner of potential intelligence indicators, and the latest version of this AR goes WAY overboard, and will almost certainly lead to local commanders taking too much precaution, stifling both MILBLOGS and the personal electronic communications of their soldiers.

Shachtman’s interview with MAJ Ceralde reveals that, while Ceralde rightly perceives the importance of OPSEC, he may well greatly overstep on what he views as advisable counter-measures:

Passing on classified data -- real secrets -- is already a serious military crime. The new regulations (and their author) take an unusually expansive view of what kind of unclassified information a foe might find useful. In an article published by the official Army News Service, Maj. Ceralde "described how the Pentagon parking lot had more parked cars than usual on the evening of Jan. 16, 1991, and how pizza parlors noticed a significant increase of pizza to the Pentagon.... These observations are indicators, unclassified information available to all … that Operation Desert Storm (was about to) beg(i)n."

Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, called Ceralde's example "outrageous."

"It's true that from an OPSEC (operational security) perspective, almost anything -- pizza orders, office lights lit at odd hours, full or empty parking lots -- can potentially tip off an observer that something unusual is afoot," he added. "But real OPSEC is highly discriminating. It does not mean cutting off the flow of information across the board. If on one day in 1991 an unusual number of pizza orders coincided with the start of Desert Storm, it doesn't mean that information about pizza orders should now be restricted. That's not OPSEC, that's just stupidity."

In fairness to MAJ Ceralde, he defends the breadth of the AR, and suggests that local commanders more authority and discretion to implement their own OPSEC plan as they see fit. From Shachtman’s interview:

Q: If a soldier has to consult his supervisor or an OPSEC officer every time he wants e-mail home or put up a blog posting, doesn't that effectively kill the practice?  What supervisor is going to have the time to check all of that material? 

[A:] The regulation says that a Soldier or other U.S. Army personnel must consult with their immediate supervisor and OPSEC officer prior to posting information in a public forum.  However, this is where unit commander or organization leadership specifies in orders, policies, or directives how this will be done.  Some units may require that Soldiers register their blog with the unit for identification purposes with occasional spot checks after an initial review.  Other units may require a review before every posting.  A private e-mail message to Family Members is not considered posting information in a public forum, but U.S. Army personnel are informed that unclassified e-mails can be intercepted and that they shouldn’t write anything that they wouldn’t say on an unsecure phone. While it is not practical to check all communication, especially private communication, the U.S. Army trusts that Soldiers and U.S. Army personnel will do the right things to maintain proper security when they understand their role in it.   

I’m glad to see MAJ Ceralde sees 100% censorship of all soldier communications (private or otherwise) “not practical.” But I can’t see how Commanders can do much to dial back what is clearly intended in the Reg, as even Ceralde admits: “Other units may require a review before every posting.”

That little insight is the real danger here, and will pretty much end MILBLOGS as we know them.

The AR not only directs Commanders (BN and above) and OPSEC Managers to ensure that no communications in a public forum or media (to include email) occur without OPSEC review, but directs UCMJ action against military violators and criminal prosecution against anyone else.

Worse than that, as written it also means soldiers need to have their commanders review/censor every single email or IM they want to send. To comply, commanders would have no choice but to forbid their soldiers from using email or IM via the internet, or the Commander would have to go with them to the internet cafe.

Completely impractical, unrealistic, worse by far than prohibitions that are widely ignored, such as gambling. This one can only be complied with by severely curtailing one of the few highly successful MWR initiatives in combat theater -- internet cafes.

Some commanders might legitimately interpret the AR to allow them to censor the outgoing personal mail of all soldiers under their command, or to prohibit telephone contact to anyone outside of their command.
The Military is making a terrible mistake with this AR. How many problems are really being caused by the status quo arrangement? What are the real risks, rather than the imagined ones, or the fear of whistle-blowing that may be justified? Then, consider the impact of what's proposed.

It will severely curtail positive news and voices from within the military. Critics within will STILL have direct lines to the NYT, Washington Post, ABC/CBS/NBC/PBS/NPR, they'll only end up silencing pro-military and pro-victory voices.

Current leadership thinks they need to shut down blogs and contact with media, and will no doubt attempt to enforce the provisions of this AR, yet they do nothing for known leaks of CLASSIFIED information. They neglect investigation, and avoid potential prosecutions. Many of those involved in leaking classified information are senior government officials and senior military officers. This is hypocrisy and discrimination of the highest caliber.

Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

The AR contains a paragraph that I have read almost verbatim in open sources, and to suggest it is critical or sensitive would be the height of stupidity and ignorance, so at the risk of punishment, I will excerpt the following:

The asymmetric methods of warfare involve a strong emphasis on collecting information from unclassified and open sources. Because the US is a free and open society, information is readily available and easy to access. Adversaries are exploiting this vulnerability by aggressively reading open source and unclassified material about the US Army. As a result, many adversaries do not need to invest in costly and highly technical intelligence collection systems when they can obtain as much as 80% of the information they are seeking openly and legally.”

Yes, we are a free and open society, and our enemies can exploit that “vulnerability.” That vulnerability is also our greatest strength and asset, for by being free and open, we deny those who would deprive us of our essential freedoms any ground to make us subject to oppression.

There will always be OPSEC concerns, and the military rightfully must take aggressive steps to ensure that real, actual essential elements of friendly information, even “critical information,” be protected from unacceptable dissemination. By taking such a severely draconian step of attempting to obstruct the vast amount of harmless – and overwhelmingly positive – information from our soldiers to their families and the public – the foolish bureaucrats responsible for this update do far more harm then good.

They will be squelching pro-victory commentary, the very voices which have been far too often far too lonely. The US Government and Military have done an abysmal job communicating to the US public the threats, the danger, the stakes involved, and the tremendous job of the US Military. They have done a terrible job explaining why we fight.

Rather than silence the few voices that have lifted to fill the gap of their negligence, better that the Military try to get better at message control – not control of the MILBLOGS, but of themselves.

Blackfive wrote his own reaction to the new regulation, full of outrage and dismay, but also some excellent insights:

The Bottom-Line to the this bad piece of regulation:  The soldiers who will attempt to fly under the radar and post negative items about the military, mission, and commanders will continue to do so under the new regs.  The soldiers who've been playing ball the last few years, the vast, VAST, majority will be reduced.  In my mind, this reg will accomplish the exact opposite of its intent.  The good guys are restricted and the bad continue on...

Operational Security is of paramount importance.  But we are losing the Information War on all fronts.  Fanatic-like adherence to OPSEC will do us little good if we lose the few honest voices that tell the truth about The Long War.

Instead, the US Army should adopt Major Robbins recommendations, allow for unit bloggers, and restrict bloggers with the same rules as the military gives embed reporters (with UCMJ exceptions).  Maybe, then, we can start winning some battles on the information front.

Like gun control, this will only serve to impede legitimate and law abiding citizens, while giving free rein to the law-breakers.

Blackfive and Shachtman both linked to a must read paper: Major Elizabeth Robbins award winning paper about military blogs "Muddy Boots".

Blackfive’s updates to his original post are illuminating enough to repeat in their entirety:

Update:  Steve Schippert sends this link to a video by Brad Levinson of the first panel of the 2006 MilBlog Conference.  At the very end, I make a prediction that I've been praying would never happen.

"If the Army restricts bloggers, all you will have are pissed-off dissident bloggers who are willing to take a risk...every Article-15  schlep will be blogging and all of the guys in this room who are trying to get the stories out, will not.  That'll be the end."

Update 2:  Wired also has an interview posted with the creator of the new regulation.  And treating reporters as Al Qaeda moles.

Update 3:  Reader Paul asks if I'll continue to post messages and emails from my friends in the war zone.  For my answer, see below.

Update 4:  John, a US Army Reserve Officer in Iraq, writes:

If the mil thinks they can keep this reservist from blogs, KMFA

Update 5:  General Casey is not the most Public Affairs minded General ever.  Can't say much else on a PG13 blog.

Also commenting today:

Army To Milbloggers: About Face

COMING DOWN ON THE MILBLOGGERS

Army Forbids Troops From Blogging

AW, HELL  —  In the vein of obtuse military bureaucracy vs …



UPDATE: Links posted up at MILBLOGS. Also, corrected reference to Noah Shachtman as a MILBLOGGER. However much he reads like one, Noah relates that he has never served in the military. I keep making that mistake with him, I hope he views that as a compliment!

UPDATE #2: Linked by Instapundit. Thanks, Glenn, for your support of MILBLOGS, and your pro-victory attitude!

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