June 1, 2007  

Internet insecurity

Revised Army reg on public-forum writings provokes backlash

In the opening pages of “Catch-22,” the bombardier Yossarian spends his time in the hospital censoring letters from enlisted men back to their families, sequentially redacting all modifiers, then articles, and finally declaring war on every written word but the letters “a,” “an” and “the.” Milbloggers saw the specter of such capricious censorship this spring, when the Army released a revised Army Regulation 530-1, “Operations Security (OpSec),” an apparent threat to almost all correspondence in such broad terms that milblogs became collateral damage in a total blackout on communication.

The regulation calls on all Army personnel, including civilians and contractors, to consult with their immediate supervisor and their OpSec officer for an operational security review before publishing or posting information in a public forum. The reg said: “This includes, but is not limited to letters, resumes, articles for publication, electronic mail (e-mail), Web site postings, web log (blog) postings, discussion in Internet information forums [and] discussion in Internet message boards.” An Army news release about the revised reg was picked up by several milblogs. The milbloggers were banned under AR 530-1’s status as an “official use only” document from disclosing its contents, but it was leaked to Wired magazine writer Noah Shachtman. He wrote in a May 2 article that the “U.S. Army has ordered soldiers to stop posting to blogs or sending personal e-mail messages, without first clearing the content with a superior officer,” concluding that the regulation may mean the end of military blogs.

The milbloggers’ response was characteristically immediate and vociferous. Matthew Burden at the widely read Blackfive concluded that 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.”

“Patriot” at A Soldier’s Perspective responded to AR 530-1 as a personal assault on his liberties: “The reality is that the regulation effectively targets EVERY form of electronic communication utilized by Soldiers AND their family members.”

Stunned by the response, Army public affairs issued a “fact sheet” countering Shachtman’s article and the blogosphere reaction. The statement reads that, “In no way will every blog post/update a Soldier makes on his or her blog need to be monitored or first approved by an immediate supervisor and OpSec officer” once the milblogger receives “guidance and awareness training” and can be “entrusted” to practice OpSec. The fact sheet further clarifies that “soldiers do not have to seek permission from a supervisor to send personal e-mails,” pointing to the qualifier in AR 530-1 that the terms only applied to communication to any “public forum,” an apparent misreading on the part of Shachtman and most milbloggers. In a surprising revelation, it further explains that the regulation offered almost no new wording since the previous regulation was issued in 2005.

For some, the fact sheet answered their questions. “Gaius” at Blue Crab Boulevard noted that the clarification “means that bloggers will get trained in OpSec rules and regulations, and then allowed to police their own conduct. The key word here is ‘trust’. The Army got this right today.” Burden at Blackfive is more circumspect, maintaining that the “reg was poorly written” and that now “[g]eneral officers are on the move to prevent it from doing damage.” He concludes that the public affairs announcement does not directly change the regulation and may not be effectively disseminated within the military to prevent excessively harsh implementation.

Burden has a point — the regulation as written permits draconian enforcement by commanders against any milbloggers in their units whom they do not trust or they simply dislike, and the risk of incurring the attention of their commanders will likely dissuade many milbloggers from starting up. Excluding the small minority of officers who would abuse AR 530-1, the commanders of troops in the field are engaged in planning and conducting life-and-death operations. Even among those who are willing to baby-sit their soldiers’ milblogs, many will be hard pressed to find the time to do so. In his book “My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” Colby Buzzell explains that he decided to quit blogging rather than submit posts for his first sergeant, as much to skip the collective hassle as to avoid submitting to censorship.

An even more serious problem is that although Army public affairs officers emphasized that AR 530-1 was not intended to shut down bloggers, its drafters should have known that such an outcome was unavoidable and has been repeated with each new regulation on the topic since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Following an April 2005 Multi-National Corps-Iraq regulation, Chaplain Brad Lewis shuttered the Training for Eternity site for five months. The Tanker Brothers temporarily put their site on “hibernation” following the release of Army Regulation 25-1 on information technology in October 2006. And in response to AR 530-1, “Ken” at The Convergence of My Ideals and Reality decided he would have to limit his Web site access to friends only, concluding that “people wonder why there’s no respect for the brass.”

The truth is that although Army officialdom insists the vague phrasing of AR 530-1 will permit local commanders the flexibility to implement the regulation in accordance to local conditions, there are significant downsides to this approach. In a recent assessment of the milblogging phenomenon, Army Maj. Elizabeth L. Robbins concluded of an early regulation effort that “the soldiers deserve a more expanded and operation definition” of their rights and responsibilities, a statement that remains true today. Indeed, the Army public affairs defense that the language in AR 530-1 has not been substantially modified since 2005 indicates the regulation’s critical fault — despite a rapidly changing situation, the rules have not evolved. Perhaps this latest contretemps will push the military services to consider the necessary language to let milblogging soldiers know how to balance their rights against their OpSec obligations.

How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:


A Soldier’s Perspective http://www.soldiersperspective.us

Blue Crab Boulevardhttp://bluecrabboulevard.com

Training for Eternityhttp://chaplain.blogspot.com

Tanker Brothershttp://mikegulf.blogspot.com

The Convergence of My Ideals and Realityhttp://samuraipunch.livejournal.com