Monday, October 30, 2006

Blog Oversight

Those of us who blog expect to receive the full protection of the First Amendment, but there are some bloggers who aren't as fortunate. No, I'm not talking about bloggers who operate out of other countries that don't recognize the concept of free speech, but rather about that special class of US citizens known as members of the military. Yesterday, while hopping around the internets, I came across this article on military blogging.

From the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan to here at home, soldiers blogging about military life are under the watchful eye of some of their own.

A Virginia-based operation, the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell, monitors official and unofficial blogs and other Web sites for anything that may compromise security. The team scans for official documents, personal contact information and pictures of weapons or entrances to camps.

Included in the story was a reference to and a link to Milblogging, a site which contains 1,565 military blogs in 28 countries with 1,825 registered members. The home page of that site had entries on news articles about military blogs and news about military blogs, including a USA Today article which was in fact a recap of this column in the Boston Herald.

When something good is happening in the military, you can rely on someone high up and behind the lines to try to kill it. Slowly. Bureaucratically. Bleed the life out of it.

That is what is happening to milblogging, the Internet phenomenon that lets soldiers in Iraq tell us what they see, do and think.

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.

As a number of milbloggers have noted, it will be the death of milblogging. All of us will be poorer, less informed for it, and more reliant on official pronouncements and reports from Baghdad’s hotel-bound U.S. press.

Certain information (maps which show the entrance to military installations, the number of troops and their intended patrol route, the type of weapons available, etc.)probably shouldn't be posted on the soldiers' blogs, but I'm reasonably certain most soldiers understand that and wouldn't jeopardize their safety and the safety of their comrades by posting that kind of material. The problem is that the guidelines are so ambiguous that they can be applied arbitrarily, and they have been.

The chilling effect has already been felt as several military bloggers have simply stopped posting. More will no doubt follow. One valuable resource for information will be lost. This is hardly fair to the soldiers, and certainly not fair to the American public who are entitled to as much information about the war as we can get, which up to this point hasn't been much.


Blogger NYMary said...

Funny, we were just talking about this in my class. A student of mine, an Iraq vet, says that guys are being "disappeared" for this sort of thing--just removed from their units. He didn't know what became of them.

3:54 AM  

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