Army steps up efforts to monitor military bloggers
WASHINGTON — A new Army effort to monitor soldiers’ personal Web sites is raising concerns among military bloggers, who worry the service is discouraging the online community’s positive efforts.
Since July a new 10-man branch of the Virginia Army National Guard’s Data Processing Unit — a team of guardsmen trained in security issues — has been surveying the Internet for the Army, looking for online postings that might violate operational security standards.
The group isn’t reviewing things like soldiers’ e-mail accounts, but it is looking at blogs and photo-sharing sites like myspace.com.
Last year Army officials issued warnings to all soldiers posting information online, noting that certain mission information, photographs of defense facilities, and other unclassified information could pose a threat to soldiers serving overseas.
Lt. Col. Stephen Warnock, commander of the data processing team, said blogs have been just a small part of their work. Most of the work is reviewing official military sites, which are .mil sites like www.army.mil, and making sure that documents and pictures being posted don’t reveal too many details about Army operations.
Between July and September, the unit has reviewed more than 800,000 Web sites, only about 500 of which included soldiers’ personal blogs.
“Most bloggers are very aware that they are speaking to the world,” he said. “When sites are reviewed and we do find information that contains (security) issues, we usually receive great cooperation from the user community.”
Still, the Guard review group — made public by the Army just this month — and an August Army order stating that all items uploaded to public Web sites by soldiers must first “be reviewed for security concerns” has put many military bloggers on edge.
Noah Shachtman, editor of defensetech. org, said in the last few weeks he has seen one blog run by an active-duty soldier voluntarily shut down because of increased pressure from commanders, and another blog switched from active-duty writers to civilian commentators for the same reason.
“The fact that soldiers want to write about their experiences is something that should be embraced by the Army,” he said. “They’re not looking to bad-mouth the military. They’re looking to talk proudly about their experiences.”
The August order specifically states that soldiers may not create or update their blogs during duty hours, and the sites must not “contain information on military activities that is not available to the general public.”
That includes “comments on daily military activities and operations, unit morale, results of operations, status of equipment, and other information that may be beneficial to adversaries.”
If soldiers are found violating those rules, both the servicemembers and their commanding officers are notified. Warnock said after that leadership can decide what punishment, if any, the soldiers should face.
“What happens after that is up to the user and leadership,” Warnock said. “All we do is point out what we found, and almost everyone understands our concern for our soldiers’ safety and takes immediate steps to correct the possible problem.”
Warnock and other Army officials said their goal is not to shut down soldier bloggers, only to make sure their writings don’t jeopardize military operations.
Civilian and veteran bloggers in April gathered in Washington, D.C., for a conference on milblogging and petitioned the Army to accept the sites as a positive and honest look at troops’ lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recently they’ve gone online to attack the August rule revisions, calling them a step in the opposite direction.
Shachtman said he thinks the service has adopted a hostile attitude toward blogs, which he worries will lead to self-censorship by soldiers.
“This is about winning the hearts and minds of the American public too,” he said of the combat operation overseas. “You’ve got 150,000 spokespeople serving in Iraq right now. I can’t believe they’re not being encouraged to use blogs.”