Restrictions on Web access through Department of Defense computers prevent some military police and Criminal Investigation Command investigators from accessing sites relevant to their cases.
During a recent Article 32 hearing in Vilseck, Germany, involving a male soldier allegedly sexually assaulted by another male soldier, a CID investigator testified he wasn’t permitted to visit a popular social networking Web site on a Defense Department computer.
Defense attorneys were trying to prove that the soldier’s MySpace page depicted homosexual behavior, and, thus, the sex was consensual.
CID special agent Shawn Burke, a lead investigator in the case, testified that he was unaware of the MySpace page because of the DOD regulations.
Asked by a defense lawyer if he’d seen the images, easily found by searching the Web under the alleged victim’s name, Burke replied: "DOD forbids us from searching MySpace, and I will not use my personal computer for a criminal investigation."
Others services, including the Navy and some Army military police investigators, however, have either worked around the restrictions by installing commercial Internet service for work on certain cases, or by using their personal computers at home.
Air Force Office of Special Investigations officials declined to discuss how their Internet investigations work, but indicated that they have caught criminals during online investigations.
Last month, Army officials ordered network managers at 81 U.S. locations to unblock Web sites such as Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as part of an effort to standardize access to the popular social networking tools. The order has no effect on overseas bases; guidance there will come from local signal commands, Army officials said recently.
Rhonda Bye, a military police investigator in Grafenwöhr, Germany, said MPs face the same DOD computer restrictions as CID, so investigators in her office use their home computers, in their spare time, to track some online information.
Bye said plans for a non-DOD computer network in her office that would allow military police to access off-limits Web sites were discussed but have not yet been implemented.
Yet, Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook are key investigation tools, she said, noting that soldiers sometimes post evidence of gang affiliation or other illegal activity.
In one high-profile case elsewhere in the military, Marine Lance Cpl. David Motari was thrown out of the military last year after he was seen in a YouTube video throwing a puppy off a cliff while on patrol in Iraq.
And in 2007, Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron F. Wilson received three months in jail and a bad-conduct discharge after he posted a video of himself throwing a frog into a running F-16 engine at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service uses non-Department of the Navy computer networks to get around the Internet restrictions, according to Rodney Bush, NCIS deputy assistant director for cyber operations and investigations.
"NCIS does not use [Navy] networks or Internet connectivity for investigative activity that could be potentially harmful to Navy and Marine Corps networks," he said. "The majority of NCIS field offices around the globe have obtained commercial Internet connectivity for this purpose.
"This connectivity provides our agents the ability to review areas of the Internet not authorized given the cyberspace security posture the [Navy] has established and it minimizes the risk of harming [Navy] networks," he said.
The growing importance of the Internet in crime fighting is also acknowledged by the FBI.
FBI public affairs officer Paul Bresson said new agents receive training in the use of public information sources, such as the Internet, and agents get more specialized training once they are placed in a field office assignment.
"The Internet is often thought of as a means for criminals to facilitate their criminal activity in anonymity," he said. "However, technology is neutral and law enforcement is not always hindered by its sophistication. In fact ... it can often supply investigators with relative information that may not have been available otherwise."