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The Military’s Internet Civil War

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/axe2.jpgRescue swimmer Karen Voorhees, left, was the subject of a fictionalized blog post on the Coast Guard's official website. (Coast Guard)

*This is the second in a series on the military and online social networking sites. *

In recent years the Pentagon has moved to ban many “Web 2.0” Internet sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. The Air Force, the military’s Internet point service, declared that blogs, in particular, were not “established, reputable media.” It blocked blog access from all official networks.

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

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

By contrast, Islamic extremists have long used Websites as their primary means of sharing ideas and recruiting new fighters. On the online battlefield, jihadists have the upper hand.

That could change. For every move in the U.S. military to tamp down on free-wheeling Internet communication, there have been grass-roots efforts to harness the Net for military purposes. This back and forth represents a sort of “civil war” within the Pentagon over Internet use.

As laid out in Part I of this series, the Army appears to have found a middle ground between Internet proponents and skeptics. It is using this “no man’s land” to build a wide range of potentially powerful Web 2.0 tools locked behind password-protected portals.

While the Army perhaps represents a prudent way forward for the military, the sea services seem to be examples of what not to do. They take big steps back for every small step forward. The Navy tried to shut down a popular blog written by a warship crew, while the Coast Guard used its own official blog to publish fiction disguised as news.

The Coast Guard problem is one that a senior official described when addressing alleged inaccuracies in online news reports about the service’s over-budget shipbuilding program. “We are encountering an interesting phenomenon in the ‘blogosphere,’” Rear Adm. Gary Blore said in a Mar. 11 news conference. “A blog can be anything you want it to be,”

The next day, events unfolded that resulted in the Coast Guard publishing a faked first-hand account of an at-sea rescue on its official “Coast Guard Journal” blog.

That particular blog had been a centerpiece of a new Internet campaign by the nation’s fifth military service. In fact, Capt. Jim McPherson, the Coast Guard’s top public affairs officer, cited this blog in February, asserting his service was ahead of the pack when it came to the military services embracing the Internet.

But there were warning signs just weeks later that McPherson’s statements were mostly propaganda. In mid-March, Mike McGrath, a Coast Guard civilian employee, was fired, in part, for contributing in his spare time to The Unofficial Coast Guard blog, a website with no formal connection to the military, but which, nonetheless, strongly supports Coast Guard policy. McGrath had been posting updates on the blog about investigations into a controversial fatal diving accident.

“I was told that my position would have been downsized anyways within the next few months, [and that] my behavior on the blog sites just made it easier to make me the first to go,” McGrath said. “I was sort of encouraged — with some very strong negative overtones — to be careful about posting my personal information and my opinions on these blogs.”

McGrath’s firing raised eyebrows in defense and policy circles. The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, based in Washington, featured McGrath’s story on its own blog. Peter Stinson, editor of The Unofficial Coast Guard blog, pointed out the Coast Guard’s lack of a clear, comprehensive blogging policy.

But the Coast Guard’s Internet problems were just beginning. A few days after McGrath’s firing, the Coast Guard admitted to fabricating a supposedly first-person “true story” on the service’s new official blog.

The story, published on the online Coast Guard Journal under the byline of the rescue diver Karen Voorhees, described the dramatic Mar. 12 rescue of several mariners from a sinking boat off the New Jersey coast. “As we hovered overhead near the survivors,” her account read in part, “I prepared myself and my gear and was lowered from the helicopter into a challenging nighttime sea, battling 10-foot seas.”

But the words were not Voorhees’s own. “I did not write that blog,” she said on a popular Internet forum a few days after the story bearing her name was posted.

According to emails leaked to The Washington Independent, McPherson had pressured his public affairs staff to come up with something “sensational.” When Voorhees’s actual description of the rescue turned out to be somewhat dull, McPherson told a subordinate to rewrite it, without Voorhees’s consent. One Coast Guard chief, objecting to McPherson’s order, called the rewritten account a “pulp-fiction drama novel.”

When challenged about the faked story, McPherson said the Coast Guard was still figuring out blogging. “We’ll do better,” he said. Yet he still defended the Coast Guard’s relatively progressive approach to the Internet.

In light of Blore’s criticism of blogs just a day before the rescue that McPherson’s staff fictionalized on their own blog, it seems that, even within the Coast Guard, the nation’s smallest military service, officials don’t agree on the value of Internet social media. For the service’s most prominent Internet advocate has used social media to publish exactly the kind of fabrication that another Coast Guard officer said he fears from civilians.

The Coast Guard, like the military in general, appears to be working at cross-purposes with itself when it comes to the Internet, while international jihadists move from strength to strength online.

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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