Social Web site for troops claims unfair treatment
Stars and Stripes March 22, 2008
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Joe Armstrong, who manages a social networking Web site for active-duty and former military members, says an erroneous Air Force PowerPoint presentation has practically killed his business.
Armstrong, a retired Marine Corps sergeant major, says the site — www.airforce.togetherwe served.com — is a convenient way for old comrades to reconnect. But Air Force Maj. Mark D. Hedden called it a threat to security.
The 1st Special Operations Wing officer produced a persuasive but flawed PowerPoint presentation that was widely distributed, converted into press releases and included in command-sponsored e-mails. The presentation, however, was unambiguous about its concerns with the Web site, which garnered 50,000 members in its first four weeks of existence following a December launch.
“Combat and operations history. Descriptions of types of duties in AOR (Area of Responsibility). Received Bronze/Silver Stars - with dates/actions,” the presentation stated. “Bottom Line — Opsec Nightmare!!!”
In addition to the presentation and briefings by commanders urging airmen to avoid the site, the Air Force blocked access to it from installations, according to Togetherweserved.com President Brian Foster.
Now the firm that runs the site, as well as a handful of other military-related social networking sites, alleges the inaccurate information has rendered the site nearly useless and caused wider problems for the Togetherweserved. com brand.
“[The site] took one year to build and incurred significant private investment. It is now unsustainable at current levels,” Foster said in an e-mail. “[The site] has effectively been put ‘off limits’ by the Air Force without due process and no attempt whatsoever has been made to contact [the site] to ascertain our identity, origin and track record with our Marines and Navy Web sites.”
Armstrong said the firm has managed www.navy.togetherwe served.com and www.marines.to getherweserved.com for several years without “one report of any OPSEC incident in that entire time concerning any of its 500,000 members.”
Since its launch on Dec. 20 the site had garnered 2,500 new members per day. Now it’s about 100, mostly veterans at that, Foster said.
The site’s owners have requested the Air Force inspector general to investigate the issue. Citing Air Force policy, the IG declined to confirm if it was investigating the matter.
Foster said his plight was exacerbated by false information in the original 1st SOW briefing, which was subsequently included in the press release and an undetermined number of command e-mails. Hedden said the owners of the site were based in Germany, when in fact, the site is based in Southern California.
The potential that servicemembers were surrendering personal information to a foreign company fomented high concern, Foster said.
“Operations security personnel from the 1st Special Operations Wing followed standard procedures to identify the location of the Together We Served website and its owner. The search erroneously indicated the parent headquarters and web server were located outside the country,” 1st SOW spokesman Aaron Schoenfeld said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
After the mistake was brought to their attention, 1st SOW officials published a correction five days later. “Unfortunately, it seems the clarification message hasn’t made its rounds as quickly as the original briefing,” Schoenfeld said in a separate e-mail.
While airmen need to exercise care when posting information online, Schoenfeld said, they are not barred from the site.