Will The Military Friend Facebook Anytime Soon?

Guests:

Price Floyd, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Department of Defense
Noah Shachtman, editor of Danger Room, Wired Magazine's National Security blog

The U.S. commander in Iraq is on Facebook, the president's top military adviser is on YouTube and Twitter. But the pentagon is considering a ban for almost all other U.S. troops. Guests discuss the questions of security, resources and censorship when it comes to social media and the military.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

The higher-ups in the U.S. military are catching on to something their troops could have told them years ago: Facebook, Twitter and other social media are powerful communications tools between the war zone and the home front. Now, Admiral Mike Mullen has a Facebook page. You can Tweet the Department of Defense, and Lieutenant General William Caldwell at Fort Leavenworth requires his students to blog. But allowing everyone access to these sites over military computers raises lots of questions about security and message and bandwidth and censorship and resources. The Pentagon is currently conducting a review to create a new social-medial policy, which would balance the benefits of increased communication and feedback with the risks of decreased security and control.

Later in the hour, digging up dirt for political gain and to feed the 24-hour news cycle. We'll talk with Mark Bowden about what sometimes passes for investigative reporting, but first, if you're in the military or related to someone who is, how do you use social media? Do you limit the kind of information you share?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also reach us at Twitter, @TOTN, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now in Studio 3A, the military's new social networking guru, Price Floyd. He's principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs at the Pentagon. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. PRICE FLOYD (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, The Pentagon): Thank you for having me. That's quite a title.

ROBERTS: It is quite a title, and I have to say it's sort of remarkable that you exist at all. What is your brief?

Mr. FLOYD: My brief is everything public affairs at the Defense Department. So it's to coordinate and work on all our messaging, all our engagement, all our interactions with the media, whether it's with interviews like this on NPR or all your colleagues in the other media world looking for information.

ROBERTS: And what is the current Pentagon policy on social media?

Mr. FLOYD: It currently doesn't exist. Right now, there is no policy on working with or in social networking sites or media. It's currently under review. It's on course to be finished within about two weeks, or at the end of the month, it's supposed to be done, presented to the leadership and a decision made. And that decision is supposed to be pushed out to all the combatant commands and all the people in the Defense Department soon after.

ROBERTS: How would you define the different issues that need to be balanced in that review?

Mr. FLOYD: I think there are two issues that need to be balanced. Number one, you need to recognize the benefits taking part in social networking sites and social networking media give you, as well as the risks involved. And I don't want to in any way shortchange the risks. They're real, and I'll just give one example of a risk.

At the Defense Department, we talk a lot about OPSEC, operational security. In the past, when a soldier, airman, Marine sent home a letter to their family or loved ones and had information in it that might have been sensitive, it could have been read by two or three people, and that was it. The problem now with social networking is that when you Twitter that information that might be sensitive on your Twitter account or put it on your Facebook page, thousands of people see it immediately, and then thousands more could see it as it's forwarded on to others. And so the ramifications of making a mistake, of putting things that shouldn't be on there on those sites are even greater than they used to be.

ROBERTS: Not to mention the multimedia aspect.

Mr. FLOYD: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: I mean, a letter is just handwritten. If you have pictures and video and audio, you've got that many more chances for a security breach.

Mr. FLOYD: Exactly.

ROBERTS: So at the same time, the military is sort of catching on to the benefits of social media for their own purposes, both for getting their own message out there and for getting feedback as they develop that message. So are those two things in conflict?

Mr. FLOYD: They are not in conflict, but I think there is tension between the two, and I think that's healthy to have that kind of tension, to kind of check ourselves. Are we saying what we're supposed to be saying? Is this the right outlet to say it in?

But I will push back a little bit on the premise that the Defense Department is just now catching on to this. Our combatant commands, those organizations of the Defense Department that have our troops in certain areas of the world, have been doing this for some time.

Southern Command, which mainly focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean, Admiral Stavridis, he used to be the commander down there, he had Facebook and blogs, and he's had those for years. He's actually now the commander in European Command, EUCOM, and he's continued that there. EUCOM had Facebook and MySpace and blogs. They've had so for years.

The Pentagon itself might be only just now pushing it out there, but we've been there for some time.

ROBERTS: I also imagine it's a useful recruiting tool.

Mr. FLOYD: The recruiting tool actually is quite interesting. I was at the Recruiting Command several weeks ago at Fort Knox, and they're going to use Twitter to keep in touch with recruits before they show up. They've been recruited, they've accepted to join the military, but they haven't shown up for duty yet. So they're going to use Twitter to keep in touch with them, especially during times of crisis.

If there's - an example is in California with all the fires. They'll keep in touch with their recruits in that area and actually tell them ways they can help out during this time. They also use Twitter to let their recruits know how they can earn credit towards promotion even before they show up for their first day of duty.

ROBERTS: Now, I know the review is not complete, but if you had to hazard a guess, where do you think the policy will come down in terms of balancing these different issues?

Mr. FLOYD: Well, I think the key word you use is balance. I believe the policy will be balanced. I believe it will understand and encourage the use of social networking because of the benefits that are there but also understand and underscore the risks there. Therefore, education, training folks to know how to use these sites safely, how to communicate with your family in a way that doesn't give out information that those who may want to try to do us harm could use.

ROBERTS: Again, we are talking with Price Floyd. He is the military's new social networking guru, although he has a very long title that I will not repeat because then we'd be out of time this hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: But you can join us. If you use social media to be touch with family and friends who are deployed, if you have been deployed and use them, if you have thoughts about how to balance security and communication with these Web 2.0 tools, give us a call, 800-989-8255, or send us email, talk@npr.org. Let's hear from Kira(ph) in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Kira, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KIRA (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Sure.

KIRA: I just wanted to say that me and my boyfriend - my boyfriend's currently deployed to Iraq, and we use Skype, which is a free video chat. We use lots of chat programs, but we're very careful about the kind of information that we talk about. We don't talk about what his unit's about to do that day or what they have done.

ROBERTS: And has he been told to be careful about that?

KIRA: No, I think we kind of know. No, he hasn't been told at all. And I think it needs to be emphasized more, especially with people in FRG, which is the Family Readiness Group, who talk to their husbands, and maybe they don't think about the type of information that's sensitive. There is a lot of information that be gathered that can kind of make a pattern for the enemy. And it might seem innocuous, but if the right pieces of information are put together in the right order, then that can really put our troops in danger. So I think it needs to be emphasized more within the military community.

ROBERTS: Kira, thanks for your call.

Mr. FLOYD: Yeah, I agree 100 percent, Kira, in what you said, and I'm glad you use Skype and you're able to stay in touch with your boyfriend. I think that both helps you back here at home but also helps him out there know that folks haven't forgotten about him and care and are focused on the amazing job he's doing at the front lines.

We do need to be aware of what we say on these sites, and even with Skype. You know, the enemy is listening. I remember in the old days, when I first started working in the government 20-odd years ago, we had stickers on our phones, and it was a stick figure with their finger on their mouth saying, you know: Shh, they're listening. So we need to be aware all the time that what we type, what we say is being recorded and listened to by someone. We just need to be careful what we put out there.

ROBERTS: We are also joined from our New York bureau by Noah Shachtman. He edits Danger Room, which is Wired Magazine's national security blog. He's been covering the military and social media. Noah Shachtman, welcome to the program.

Mr. NOAH SHACHTMAN (Editor, Danger Room): Hey, thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: As you are waiting for this Pentagon review, what are you expecting to see?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, first I just wanted to push back on something Price said before, just about the operational security concerns. I think they might be a little overblown, and I think that more people in the military community actually act like your first caller, which is they are already aware of operational security and are already taking great pains to avoid disclosing any real secrets. And the sort of only quantitative study of whether secrets were leaked on social media or not took place in 2006, when military blogs were really up and running.

And they found that independent military bloggers had only had 28 security violations over the course of a year, while official military sites, you know, dot-mil official publications, had 1,813 violations of those same security policies. So I think that folks that use social media in the military are already taking great pains to avoid disclosing any secrets.

ROBERTS: And so do you think this is a solution in search of a problem?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: In some ways yes, but I also think that the military review is very necessary, not because there's no policy but in fact because there are dozens of overlapping policies about what various branches of the military are allowed to do and what they're not.

For example, the Marines recently banned Twitter and Facebook from its official networks, while the Army ordered its network administrators to allow those sites. And that's just one example of how there's a lot of tension within the military about whether to use these sites or not, and that's why I think this review is very helpful.

ROBERTS: And a key distinction there is that the Marine ban was on their own system. If a Marine has access to another Internet provider, they're not banned from it.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: That's correct. And so, I just got back from Afghanistan the other day, and at the Marine bases there in southern Helmand Province in Afghanistan, there's these sort of Internet cafes and they are packed with Marines. And all of them on dozens of computers are either on Facebook or Twitter or MySpace all the time.

ROBERTS: We need to take a quick break, but we will be back with Noah Shachtman from Wired and Price Floyd from the Pentagon, and we'll get to your calls. You can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us email, talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. There's a new focus in the Pentagon on social media and a new tension. They've redesigned the DOD Web site. Top officers regularly tweet and blog. You can friend some of them on Facebook. These are great ways to connect with 18- to 24-year-old potential recruits and to reach out to the media, among other uses, but as we've heard, not everyone in the ranks is convinced. Security, resources, potential embarrassments and too much information are all concerns.

Stepping into the debate, Price Floyd, the Pentagon's new social media guru, and Noah Shachtman, editor of Danger Room, Wired Magazine's national security blog.

And if you're in the military or related to someone who is, how do you use social media, and do you limit the kind of information you share? Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org. You can also reach us on Twitter, @TOTN, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So we've been talking about security concerns in this sort of general way. It's kind of a gray area, though, because there are obvious details about location and troop movements that you wouldn't want to get out, but are there things that are just a little bit silly or may be embarrassing or not particularly gentlemanly that are not necessarily something that is a danger but maybe not something the military wants all over the place?

Mr. FLOYD: I really can't comment about the ungentlemanly stuff that may be on there, but things that may not be, quote-unquote, "approved talking points" from, you know, from a bureau like mine, public affairs, I actually welcome that sort of talk and chatter on the Web. I believe it shows a Pentagon that has multiple voices, and it gives a transparency to our decision-making process that I believe is good.

ROBERTS: Noah Shachtman?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I don't think everybody in the military is quite as open-minded and quite as smart about this stuff as Price is, unfortunately. For example, there is a young lieutenant named Matthew Gallagher(ph) who ran a blog while he was deployed in Iraq last year, and when he had some unkind things to say about his commanding officer, his blog was shut down. So I think sometimes that ungentlemanly talk does get people into trouble in the military.

Moreover, there's some silly stuff, too. Gallagher ran afoul of an Army regulation that said you had to approve each blog post with your superior officer before you put it up. And when I asked the author of those regulations what kind of information might be considered a violation of operational security, he mentioned pizza orders.

There's an old wives' tale that the number of pizza orders to the Pentagon increased on the eve of the first Iraq War. And that by tracking those pizza orders, you could tell when the attack against Saddam Hussein was going to be launched. And so he said that pizza was a potential operational security violation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Do you, Price Floyd, sometimes find yourself having conversations either with people who don't understand social media, or they just have this sort of knee-jerk reaction that controlling is better than not controlling within the military culture?

Mr. FLOYD: Well, there's kind of the basic operating - in government, not just at the Defense Department but elsewhere, that it's impossible to get in trouble for what you say to the media or on a blog if you don't say anything to the media or on a blog. So if that's the foundation, anything above that, I'll take as a good day.

I think that what I find at the Pentagon is not so much the pizza order phenomena, but it's a cultural difference and understanding about what social networks are and what media 2.0 is or Web 2.0 is. A lot of people think of it as a new way to get information out. So in that sense, when we went from blast faxing information to blast emailing, people were so excited you could push one button and reach so many people. And they believed that Web 2.0 is just the next extension of that. And I believe that's just a fundamental misunderstanding of what Web 2.0 is.

It's not so much a way of getting more information out, but it's a way of engaging with the American people, one audience, those overseas. In the case of the military, as well, engaging internally with our internal audience of several million members of the Defense Department. And in that sense, it's that two-way street, and that's what Secretary Gates wants. He wants that engagement. He wants to hear back from people. And the new Web site that you mentioned, defense.gov, pentagon.gov, .mil, dod.gov or .mil, some of the features on that underscore his wish to engage with people and not just the typical ask the secretary a question, and he'll answer it, which is on there, but also what - right now, you know, what are the policy initiatives that are important to you?

And I think that engagement that happens is much more important than a way - much better than just a new way to get more information out.

ROBERTS: Well also in addition to taking advantage of the two-way communication, the culture on the Web has a pretty high BS detector, right? I mean, if you are putting out talking points that are crafted and vetted and edited within an inch of their lives, people online smell that out in a second.

Mr. FLOYD: That's right. And I've never - on my Twitter site at the Defense Department, I've never put out a press release or mentioned a press release. I actually ask questions more often than not, and - or I saw an interesting article, and I want their opinion of it.

And I wanted to highlight one thing. When this first - when this news broke about that we're doing the policy review, and when the Marine Corps made its announcement about blocking access, I just sent a Twitter out saying this is out there, what do you think about it? And it was interesting the response I got because remember, I was sending it out on a Twitter account. And the majority of people, unsurprisingly, said they wanted, you know, for folks to have access, but a minority - but a large minority, actually said they understood why these things should be blocked and that there were security concerns.

And what was interesting about it was I was getting it on a Twitter account. These people were on Twitter saying yes, this should be blocked. So not everyone who uses social networking sites is in favor of having complete and open access.

ROBERTS: Well, Noah Shachtman, you asked cadets, Academy cadets, if they would block access.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, I was at West Point a couple of months ago, and I asked a group of cadets who were heading out to be company commanders and platoon commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan if they would allow their troops to blog or get on Facebook. And I would say, like, 19 out of 20 of them said no way, no how. You know, oh my God, they're going to reveal secrets. Who knows what they're going to say? Oh, who's got time to blog when you're in a war zone. No way, they said.

And then I asked them well, do you think there's any way of actually stopping that kind of information from getting out? Is there any way to stop these guys from getting on Skype, getting on email, getting on Twitter accounts, what have you, and talking to their friends and family. And they all said, well, that can't happen, either. And so we've got kind of a dilemma here.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Matt(ph) in Brighton, Michigan. Matt, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MATT (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

MATT: Yeah, you know, I served twice in Iraq, once during the invasion and once again in 2005, and I guess I bring a different perspective to it only because I really thought that there was an increased focus in what's going on at home instead of on the mission when we had all that access to social networking sites and whatnot. You know, my question is: Do we really need it, and is it appropriate for the war zone?

ROBERTS: So you found that constant updates from home were distracting?

MATT: I really did. And, you know, not just personally, I saw it within - you know, I was a lieutenant for the invasion and a captain for the occupation - well, if it's appropriate to call it an occupation - for my time in Baghdad, and you know, again, I really thought that there was less focus on what we were doing, and time passed faster for me and for my soldiers when we didn't have that same access to home.

ROBERTS: Matt, thanks for your call. Price Floyd?

Mr. FLOYD: Interesting. Matt, did you - were you able to…

ROBERTS: Oh, I'm sorry, he's not there anymore.

Mr. FLOYD: Oh, he's gone now. I guess my questions to Matt would be did it make it easier when you re-integrated back here to the States? Did having had that constant contact make it easier for you and for your family when you came back?

I've also heard your comments from other commanders on the ground, that they need to be focused on the fight, not what's going on at home. But I've also heard lots of comments about how it was easier to re-integrate once they came back. And of course what Noah said: There's just almost - there's no way to stop this. It's out there. The train has left the station a long time ago. So the idea is to have some sort of policy and process that makes this safe for folks to use and useful.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Becca(ph) in Abbeville, South Carolina. Welcome to the program.

BECCA (Caller): Hi. I think it's very contradicting. When my husband, who's in the military, cannot send me an email through Hotmail, but yet you go on YouTube and you see thousands of confidential postings. For example, you go on there and you see transit crews having to deal with tons of rats and IEDs, sleeping in tents and horrible conditions. But yet, he can't send me an email. I just think that the entire communication strategy isn't streamlined at all.

ROBERTS: Price Floyd?

Mr. FLOYD: I think that folks need to have access to - be in contact with their families. And I think it's good for morale for the folks out there and for the family members back here. And new policy will be coming out within weeks to help people balance the needs of the members and their families with - understand the risks that are involved.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Mike in Nashville, Tennessee. Mike, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. How are you? Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Sure.

MIKE: I served one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq. And I guess I would take almost a diametrically opposite position as some of the things Price has heard from commanders. I was an NCO, and I will tell you that my soldiers being able to have almost seamless communication with their families - and by that I mean, hey mom here's some photos on my MySpace that she could go look at, as opposed to the usual email blurb - was absolutely helpful to our morale. And I saw it have a very positive effect on our soldiers.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: You know, I got - when I was in Afghanistan - I just got back, like I said. And I must have had a dozen, maybe more, family members of the Marine unit I was with email me to thank me because the regulations and bandwidth issues kept a lot of those troops from letting them know what was going on at home. But I was able to report on what was going on in their lives, and they just thanked me over and over again for the insight into what their sons and husbands were doing every day. They just - they crave that information back home.

ROBERTS: You know, Noah, we haven't really talked about the bandwidth issues. Explain what you mean by that and how big a problem you think it is.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, you know, basically, you know, when you're out somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, it's a lot harder to get online than it is if you're sitting at your desk in the office. And the further you are down range out in the field, the harder it is to get online. That's just the fact of the matter. And so certain sites have been blocked on military networks because of bandwidth concerns, that they're eating up too much network space that should be going to predator video and to, I don't know, PowerPoints and to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHACHTMAN: …and to other things. But the funny thing about the military policy is that it's really contradictory. And that's why the review, like the one Price has been talking about, is so important. For example, not only was - were many bases blocking YouTube because it took up too much bandwidth, they're also blocking the Defense Department's own answer to YouTube, which is a low bandwidth, totally secure, safe, no-bad-stuff version called TroopTube. They were blocking both YouTube and this military alternative. So, it just goes to show that, you know, when the military's blocking its own video-sharing site, we need a cleaner policy.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Price Floyd, did you want to jump in there?

Mr. FLOYD: Well, I agree with everything that Noah said. And the previous caller, I must have been misunderstood. I didn't say all commanders have told me that, nor did I agree with some of the commanders. But several commanders have told me that this type of access, constant access back home, they thought interfered with their men's minimum admissibility(ph) to do their job where they were. But that was not, in any means, all of the commanders that I heard from.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Marty in Litchfield, Illinois. Marty, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARTY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

MARTY: I was calling - I was listening to this, and I think that the -having that is important to the people for staying in touch, but I also saw it abused when I was over there in 2005. We were using our own service, so we weren't tying up the military service. But I would chat through Yahoo or something with my wife, and if a mortar attack came in, I would just let her know I had to leave. I wouldn't say why or anything, you know, didn't realize how it was in the day or whatever.

But later in the day, I'll get an email from her where a spouse that lived next door to her whose husband was a first sergeant in my battalion, had informed her we had been mortared that day. And stuff like that, when, you know, people are not paying attention to what they should be doing can cause, you know, some major problems.

ROBERTS: Well, this also gets to the point that the information is incredibly hard to control, that if you are able to close down one source or, you know, have consistency policy levels to one set of troops, that doesn't necessarily cut across all other channels of information.

Actually, we have an email from Aaron in Minnesota, who says: I'm surprised there still isn't a policy in place for social media. When I was Afghanistan in 2005, the main social media site was MySpace. After six months in country, we were threatened by our commands that releasing too much information on MySpace will get us in trouble to the point of being prosecuted under UCMJ for violation of OPSEC. Apparently, there were supposed to be some government employees monitoring the sites to make sure that military members are not blogging sensitive information. Is this true, or was it an empty threat?

Mr. FLOYD: I wasn't at the Defense Department at that time and - but to my knowledge, there's not - there are not DOD people monitoring MySpace to make sure other folks follow OPSEC regulations.

ROBERTS: We also have an email from Sarah in Nashville, Tennessee, who says: What about all the other military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is my understanding our soldiers count for only about half the U.S. personnel in both theaters. What about that security issue?

Noah Shachtman, obviously, the Pentagon can't necessarily control the media of contractors. But is there an additional question here about how much the message is being controlled?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: You know, well, that's why there's all these overlapping and confusing regulations. The Army actually do apply to contractors, as well, but some other regulations don't. So it's confusing. Also, about the monitoring, while I don't think that goes on constantly, there have been, at times, teams from a group called the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell that have monitored troops communication over social networks. So, you know, it's off again, it's on again. The regulations apply to one people - one set of people, not the other.

Just one other point I want to bring up, too, which is there's actually a huge upside, there's a huge potential for good for the military in this. There's not just risk involved. The military has got a chance to let its top commanders hear from soldiers that they would never hear from before and to let members in the military that would never interact together, interact over these social networks. And so I hope, you know, we can get into that a little bit and talk about the benefits of the military, as well.

ROBERTS: We are going to have to save that for another show.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Noah Shachtman joined us from the New York bureau. He's the editor of "Danger Room," Wired.com's national security blog. We're also joined by Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs at the Department of Defense. Thank you both so much.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Thank you.

Mr. FLOYD: Thanks.

ROBERTS: I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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