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October 23, 2006

Bloggers, Embeds, and OPSEC, Oh My!, Part II

My apologies for the delay in posting this. This past week has been been hectic and I had another social engagement after work. I'm started to meet myself coming around corners...

Matt at Blackfive is unhappy that the Army is going to start monitoring bloggers:

I just spoke to an *ackk!!!* AP reporter who talked with JP at Milblogging.com and I about the Army's new unit watching for OPSEC (Operational Security) violations on soldiers' blogs and web sites:
Unofficial blogs often show pictures with sensitive information in the background, including classified documents, entrances to camps or weapons. One Soldier showed his ammo belt, on which the tracer pattern was easily identifiable...

Here's where the half-vast editorial staff earns its well-deserved reputation for being a jackbooted, pro-government Fascist. We were dismayed by the tone of several of the comments on his post. Let's all take a giant step back here, and a deep breath.

Precisely *what* makes this situation any different than the New York Times complaining when the federal government wants them to stop publishing classified information? Did we miss something? Is violating OPSEC no longer a concern?

"But...but...", says your Strategic Corporal, Major, or God forbid, Your Strategic PFC, blogging live and uncensored from the combat zone, "some of this information is available elsewhere anyway and not all of it needs to be classified!".

Pardon nousif we're not quite ready to buy off on "We trust this guy with a rifle... gee whiz... why not "trust" him with a computer and the OPSEC of his entire unit"? Unless he's a hell of a shot, we perceive a slight difference in the amount of potential damage from misuse (intentional or otherwise) of said equipment.

With all the value that milbloggers provide (and it is considerable) when people start questioning the right of commanders to limit access to information which endangers our troops or their mission, we have a problem with that.

We question the equivalence of trusting a nineteen year old with a rifle ... or the security of his entire command. There's a fundamental difference in scope there, and if people can't admit that there is the legitimate concern that too is a problem. When our own side wants to accuse the Army - on no evidence, mind you, that this has occurred yet - of mindless censorship, simply for wanting to enforce rules that seem to us to be quite reasonable, they have begun to sound rather like Bill Keller.

Because the logical underpinning for the idea that the Army does not have the right to monitor blogs for OPSEC is that the Army does not have the right to enforce its own rules anymore. Is that really a road we want to go down?

We are unsure of the need to start screaming the "C"-word when the Army asserts a right that is as old as time: the right to control information on the battlefield. Furthermore, what does and does not violate OPSEC may not be readily apparent to your average milblogger. Matt comments:

As a former Intel Officer, I agree that there's a need to make sure that blogs aren't violating OPSEC. For instance, if three bloggers are in separate units but witness an event and blog about it, there might not be an OPSEC issue in one blog, BUT if you put the information from all three blogs together, you might be able to piece together Battle Damage Assessment or Order of Battle information. Since the bloggers might be in different chains of command, this might be missed by their 06 commanders who are responsible for blog review. Setting up a group to evaluate this possibility is needed.

You're damned right. All the more reason not to get our Hanes UltraSheers in a wad.

However, the watchdog should also realize that coming down on bloggers for some (perceived) OPSEC violations might be a bit ridiculous - especially when there are photos and explicit descriptions of weapon systems and procedures that are publicly available on civilian (ie. FAS) or military/DoD websites.

Warning bloggers of possible violations is a good thing. But mindlessly cracking down on them without considering the consequences to the positive information flow will only create a cadre of negative military bloggers flying under the radar that will become the anti-military poster children for the New York Times and CNN.

Matt and Jules Crittenden of the Boston Herald are worried that the new restrictions will be the death of milblogging:

Milblogging and its effects in boosting soldiers’ morale and countering the media’s prevailing negative views are the subject of former military intelligence officer Matthew Currier Burden’s recent book, “The Blog of War,” on how soldiers are “offering unfettered access to the War on Terror in their own words.”

For the last three years, in an unprecedented historical phenomenon, we’ve been able to hear from frontline front-line soldiers directly. The combat, the boredom, the loneliness, the camaraderie, their beliefs, their frustrations, their accomplishments. From Iraqis they encounter, suspicion and hatred as well as smiles and gratitude.

It has been a rich picture unlike anything you know about Iraq if all your information comes from newspapers and TV.

Now, the military has assigned a National Guard unit to monitor the Internet for possible violations of operational security - OPSEC, as they call it. No one is suggesting significant violations have occurred, and soldiers were already required to have their commanders’ approval to blog, and to submit to periodic review. A mechanism to ensure soldiers are doing their duty makes sense, but overzealous officers will find violations, real or imagined, and punish soldiers.

The new rules also say commanders in the field must approve in advance anything that goes onto a public Web site. So much for trusting soldiers to observe OPSEC, much as civilian reporters have been trusted to do under liberal embedding rules.

They may be right to be worried. But on the other hand, I'm not entirely sure they aren't assuming (perhaps unjustly) an unreasonable level of scrutiny that will be arbitrarily and capriciously applied across the board. Any rule is bound to be abused at times. There will undoubtedly be individual cases where overzealous commanders will crack down too hard, to the inevitable chorus of screeching from the blogging community. The problem is self-correcting. Yes, individual blogs may "die" a horrible death, unjustly even, at the hands of arbitrary and capricious mean-spirited poopy heads bent on harshing their free-speech mellow.

But let's not forget the alternative to the 'death of individual milblogs' (and to be honest, we're not talking about shutting down milblogs as a whole - we're talking about putting sensible limits on them).

The alternative is having to hand yet another folded flag to the mother of two small children because you were too squeamish to draw a line where it needed to be drawn. We're talking about the death of people. You can kill a lot of blogs as far as we're concerned, and more will spring up like wildflowers. We've killed off at least two so far. We'll undoubtedly kill off this one, one fine day; but we have no doubt the world will continue to spin on its axis and no one's heart will even skip a beat. Real life, with all its wonders, will go on.

People aren't that expendable.

Posted by Cassandra at October 23, 2006 12:30 PM


Agreed. It's all about having one's priorities in order...and not everyone does.

Posted by: camojack at October 24, 2006 07:48 AM

OF course, milblogs must be held to account for OPSEC. How to get there, is, also of course, the question. The problem lies not in the review, but the results of that review. How the "errors" are corrected is going to affect milblogs.

They may be right to be worried. But on the other hand, I'm not entirely sure they aren't assuming (perhaps unjustly) an unreasonable level of scrutiny that will be arbitrarily and capriciously applied across the board.

This is the military. Of course, any rule promulgated (and a lot which will be made up on the spot) will be applied "arbitrarily and capriciously". The military is the only place past childhood in which "because I said so" actually means something.

THe M9 pistol. I rest my case.

Posted by: bud at October 24, 2006 04:00 PM

Heh. Bud channels me. And not just on the M9.

I've long held that weak commanders will use this as a hammer to squash otherwise legitimate criticism.

Enlightened commanders (i.e., me) will not. But I will counter-blog and tell everybody all the stupid things the whiners said in their Art. 15 proceeding...

Okay, maybe I won't. I'll have someone else do that, anonymously.

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at October 24, 2006 06:01 PM

Yeah, I think that's always a problem.

But how do you preserve a command prerogative, John, if you are afraid to say "thus far and no farther?" for fear someone is going to say "You're harshing my mellow?".

I see your concern. Honestly, I do.

But on the otter heiny, as Justice Jackson (I believe) once said, the Constitution was never intended to be a suicide pact. There is an intelligent compromise here, and the battlefield is no place to be lily livered about these things.

You have to set priorities, and I think people's lives ought, intelligently, to come first before some dude blogging. I just do. And I say that as a blogger and a writer, someone who dearly loves to write. But you know as well as I do that for every person who is responsible, there is a John Walker Lindh. And there is a guy like that dude who decided to roll grenades into his tent. What about his "rights"?

Yeah. Unfortunately, in the future, if you haven't preserved the right to advance screening that sort of sabotage may be accomplished remotely. Murder by blog.

The check on this is to have an outside board, I think, to say 'was it really OPSEC in the first place?" and not command harassment.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 24, 2006 06:29 PM

And any rule can be abused. Witness Abu Ghuraib. But that has never been a great argument against rules.

It is a good argument for writing them well and watching how they are enforced, however.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 24, 2006 06:31 PM

"And any rule can be abused. Witness Abu Ghuraib. But that has never been a great argument against rules."

Even the most basic rule can be abused by "arbitrary and capricious mean-spirited poopy heads". Such as the new 1st Sgt my bro-in-law had to deal with at Lejuene who insisted on following the letter of the hair length regulations to the point where the men were having to get haircuts daily during their lunch hour and stand in formation for inspection before being allowed to secure for the day. And while this guy was an "Instant A$$hole - Open eyes in the morning" personality in a Marine Corps uniform, it doesn't diminish the logic or necessity of haircut regulations.

Posted by: Sly2017 at October 25, 2006 02:03 PM

I can top that one, Sly.

When the Unit was at the Nasal Academy, some asshat made him shave the top quarter of his chest because apparently the chest hair protruding from that little "v" in his uniform shirt was "too distracting".

Now he is a damned fine-looking piece of man flesh and all, but he is not overly hirstute. Can you say 'unresolved psycho-sexual issues'?

Posted by: Cassandra at October 25, 2006 02:09 PM

I do have to say that I still like to play with it every night before I fall asleep, however. So perhaps I can see his point.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 25, 2006 02:11 PM

Maybe it was more like "Austin Powers stole my mojo" issues.......

*Yeah baby, YEAH!*

Posted by: Sly2017 at October 25, 2006 02:14 PM

Sidebar: Given that this post has mostly concerned the best way to disseminate information both positive and negative on the GWOT, where is the MSM outrage for this:

But we're European, we're more enlightened.

Oh, nevermind, I get it -- these weren't American soldiers.

Posted by: Sly2017 at October 25, 2006 02:19 PM

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