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Army Squeezes Soldier Blogs, Maybe to Death

Wired | May 03, 2007 
Noah Shachtman

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, Wired News has learned. The directive, issued April 19, is the sharpest restriction on troops' online activities since the start of the Iraq war. And it could mean the end of military blogs, observers say.

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.

The new rules (.pdf) obtained by Wired News require a commander be consulted before every blog update.

"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."

Army Regulation 530--1: Operations Security (OPSEC) (.pdf) 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."

Active-duty troops aren't the only ones affected by the new guidelines. Civilians working for the military, Army contractors -- even soldiers' families -- are all subject to the directive as well.

But, while the regulations may apply to a broad swath of people, not everybody affected can actually read them. In a Kafka-esque turn, the guidelines are kept on the military's restricted Army Knowledge Online intranet. Many Army contractors -- and many family members -- don't have access to the site. Even those able to get in are finding their access is blocked to that particular file.

"Even though it is supposedly rewritten to include rules for contractors (i.e., me) I am not allowed to download it," e-mails Perry Jeffries, an Iraq war veteran now working as a contractor to the Armed Services Blood Program.

The U.S. military -- all militaries -- have long been concerned about their personnel inadvertently letting sensitive information out. Troops' mail was read and censored throughout World War II; back home, government posters warned citizens " careless talk kills ."

Military blogs, or milblogs, as they're known in service-member circles, only make the potential for mischief worse. On a website, anyone, including foreign intelligence agents, can stop by and look for information.

"All that stuff we used to get around a bar and say to each other -- well, now because we're publishing it in open forums, now it's intel," said milblogger and retired Army officer John Donovan.

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."

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