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The Military’s Internet ‘Civil War’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/uss-russell.jpgUSS Russell (Chris van Avery)

This is the third and final installment in a series on social networking sites and the military.

Part One: How the Army Found Middle Ground

Part Two: How the Coast Guard Botched Its Online Start

Islamic extremists long have used Websites as their primary means of sharing ideas and recruiting new fighters. The Pentagon, by contrast, largely rejected the Internet as a networking tool. Last year the Air Force, as the military’s lead agency for Internet warfare, banned access to blogs from official networks. The ban coincided with a wider military crackdown on many “Web 2.0” Internet sites, like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

The military was worried that U.S. troops might inadvertently reveal classified information. To many in the military, the need for secrecy outweighed the Internet’s potential for rapidly and widely sharing ideas.

But in the Pentagon’s tangle of agencies, there is rarely total consensus on any issue – the Internet included. For every move within the military to tamp down on free-wheeling Internet communication, there are grass-roots efforts to harness the Web for military purposes. This back and forth represents a sort of “civil war” within the Pentagon over the use of the Internet.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The Army appears to have found a middle ground between Internet proponents and skeptics, and is using this “no man’s land” to build a wide range of potentially powerful Web 2.0 tools locked behind password-protected portals. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, used its official blog in March to publish a fictionalized rescue account labeled as news.

When it comes to the Internet, the Army perhaps represents a prudent way forward for the military, while the Coast Guard might be the best example of what not to do. The Navy lies somewhere in between — if one group of Navy bloggers, and the official reaction to them, is any indication.

In March, the crew of the destroyer USS Russell essentially circumvented the Navy’s public-affairs machinery to launch an unofficial blog, “The Destroyermen.” Its aim: to “deliver an unvarnished, informative and entertaining account of life aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer; to report on USS Russell’s contribution to the ‘global war on terror’ and execution of America’s maritime strategy, and provide insight into the character of the American sailor,” according to Lt. Commander Chris van Avery, the blog’s editor and main writer.

The Destroyermen focused on the daily routine of Russell’s sailors as they ate, cleaned machinery, trained and went ashore on leave. Only occasionally, and vaguely, did van Avery venture on opinion on U.S. strategy. Even rarer were any mentions of Russell’s military missions and whereabouts.

By the modest standards of military Websites, The Destroyermen blog was an overnight sensation. It was getting hundreds of hits per day when, unexpectedly, the site went dead in late April — at around the same time that Russell entered Middle Eastern waters controlled by U.S. Central Command.

Van Avery explained in an interview that some public-affairs officers were more supportive than others. It seems Central Command’s flacks were wary of Russell’s grass-roots Internet presence. There were fears the warship’s blog might betray military secrets.

It apparently took intervention by high-ranking Navy officers to break the Internet blockade around Russell. “The Navy’s current policies are almost completely silent with respect to this new medium,” van Avery told The Washington Independent, “so we’re picking our way through the fog and trying to maintain a safe speed. I’ll also note again that many in the Navy have seen the potential of the medium and are working hard to find a way to adapt the policies and procedures to make it work. In the meantime, we’ve got a ‘learner’s permit’ to continue.”

The Army, by contrast, already has a working policy in place, however imperfect, and has been developing its Internet tools in leaps and bounds. By the spring ,the Army had a half-dozen password-protected Internet forums for sharing ideas and tactics, in addition to an online video-based ethics training site similar to YouTube and a blogging and networking site based on MySpace.

Army Maj. Ray Kimball, part of the Army’s small Internet advocacy office, attributes much of his organization’s successes to consistent support from the Army’s academic establishment at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. Leavenworth’s top general, William Caldwell, even announced in May that blogging would be part of the formal graduate curriculum. But officers at Kimball’s “Center for Company-Level Leaders,” based in New York, also highlight their “compromise” approach to the Internet. Those Internet tools that run any risk of spreading classified data are contained within password-protected Army networks.

In one sense, it’s the unique missions of the Army’s Internet tools that allow such protection. The Army blogs, for example, aren’t intended for public outreach, as are the Coast Guard’s and Navy’s controversial blogs. It’s one thing to lock the Army blogging site behind a secure network; doing the same with the sea services’ blogs, on the other hand, would render them useless.

Still it’s telling that, as far back as a year ago, a key Army official was publicly touting the benefits of blogging — despite the continuing crackdown in other sectors of the military. Blogging “is a technology we are embracing,” Vernon Bettencourt, one of the Army’s top “information officers,” said in May 2007.

Not so the Navy, which has struggled to accept its own homegrown bloggers, despite their nearly overnight success as public outreach. The Navy’s soul-searching over the benefits and risks of blogging reflects the wider struggle inside the Pentagon over the Internet – a struggle that civilians and terrorists resolved years ago.

**

David Axe is a freelance journalist based in Washington. He is the author of “Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War.” He blogs at www.warisboring.com.

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