Military Tightens Rules on Military Bloggers

Pentagon officials are cracking down on "mil-bloggers," military men and women who write blogs about their wartime experiences. The Pentagon is concerned about what it calls "operational security." The crackdown has quieted some blogs, while driving many to look for ways to follow the new rules.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY.

This month's American death toll in Iraq reaches 100.

I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The latest casualty was a Marine. He died yesterday fighting in Iraq's Anbar province. Also, more than 30 Iraqis are reported dead after a series of explosions ripped through the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City this morning.

BRAND: For Americans, October is now the deadliest month in Iraq this year. Despite this rise in violence, a number of U.S. troops continue to blog in support of the Iraq war. Coming up, we'll read from one of those blogs.

CHADWICK: First, DAY TO DAY contributor Xeni Jardin reports on why the Pentagon is now cracking down on military blogs.

(Soundbite of movie “A Few Good Men”)

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (ACTOR): (As Colonel Nathan Jessep) You want answers?

Mr. TOM CRUISE (ACTOR): (As Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee) I think I'm entitled.

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (ACTOR): (As Colonel Nathan Jessep) You want answers?

Mr. TOM CRUISE (ACTOR): (As KAFFEE) I want the truth.

JARDIN: John Neunnan(ph) is an active duty serviceman who blogs at UP4.com where you can listen to this Podcasting produces with his buddy Charlie.

(Soundbite of military blog at UP4.com)

CHARLIE: Hi. Welcome to Up 4 Radio.

JARDIN: Military blogs like theirs feature first person accounts of life on the frontlines. By some estimates, there are about 1,200 such sites linking to soldiers who write them in an online community and keeping them tied with friends and family back home. But military officials are now giving mil-blogs more scrutiny for possible operational security or OPSEC risks.

Lieutenant Colonel STEPHEN WARNOCK (U.S. Army, Manassas, Virginia): I don't care. You want to take a picture of yourself when you're in front of a camel? That's great, I did it when I was in, you know, Iraq in 1991. But what if you're also just holding a map in your hand that's going to show current operations.

JARDIN: Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Warnock heads the Army's Web Risk Assessment Cell based in Manassas, Virginia. He and his team review both official and unofficial army Web sites for potential operational security violations. They look for text, photos or videos that could reveal sensitive information.

Lt. Col. WARNOCK: Loose lips sink ships. People are always looking to confirm information. They want to know what information's out there. And that hasn't changed in years and years.

JARDIN: What has changed in recent years is the military administration's approach to blogs. When the war started back in 2003, they weren't as popular. But now, the military is demanding that soldiers using government computers and networks check with commanders before publishing posts. And before they hit the publish button, deployed soldiers must submit blog content to their commanders for review.

Mr. NOAH SHACHTMAN (Editor, Defensetech.org): I think, frankly, it's a mistake on part of the military.

JARDIN: Noah Shactman, editor of Defensetech.org, says when word of the perceived Pentagon crackdowns spread among mil-bloggers, some of the more popular sites voluntarily went quiet, fearing retribution.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: There's, you know, no better, no more enthusiastic, no more gung-ho advocates and spokespeople for the mission in Iraq than the guys who are actually out on the mission. And, you know, these are the guys they should be trumpeting, these are the guys they should be pumping up.

JARDIN: Shachtman believes the mil-blog crackdown is an inevitable culture clash between military traditions of censorship and the expectations of young soldiers raised on open digital media.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: You know, you take an 18- or 19-year-old kid, put them through 6, 8, 10 weeks of training, give them a gun, and give them the responsibility and the power of life and death. And we're allowed to trust them with a rifle but not with a mouse and a keyboard?

JARDIN: Critics like Shactman say another problem is that regulations can be erratically enforced.

Soldier blogger John Neunann with UP4.com.

Mr. NEUNNAN: The company commanders, the unit commanders may flip through this army regulation and read it as we're not allowed to have any mil-bloggers because it's an OPSEC risk. It's a - what we'll do is we'll just outlaw mil-blogging in the unit.

Lt. Col. WARNOCK: If anybody gets that, they definitely don't get it from us.

JARDIN: Lieutenant Colonel Warnach counters that the work of his Web Site security review team is based in practical concerns.

Lt. Col. WARNOCK: You know, we monitor hundreds of thousands of Web pages every month and we monitor dozens to hundreds of blogs. If we see something, we identify it. We review it and come through decision whether it does violate operational security and then we will send a notification to the person, if we can identify the person as being, you know, a soldier. And we say, you know, take a look at this, does this pass the common sense test to you? Because 99 percent of the time, it comes down to common sense.

JARDIN: The mil-bloggers are organizing among themselves to discuss how to help the administration address security concerns without creating a chilling effect for soldier bloggers.

A first-ever mil-blog conference took place in Washingto,n D.C. this past April. Retired paratrooper and Army officer Matthew Currier Burden was there. He blog at Blackfive.net, and recently compiled mil-blog excerpts for his book, The Blog of War.

Mr. MATTHEW CURRIER BURDEN (Author, The Blog OF War): A lot of people talk about how the society is disconnected from the military and I don't think it's as much as some other people do. But, you know, this is one way you keep your society connected with your military is by providing these sort of outlets of information for people to go and find.

JARDIN: Burden and other mil-bloggers plan to meet and discuss these issues again next May.

For NPR News, Xeni Jardin.

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