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The Military’s Internet ‘Civil War’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/soldiersmyspace.jpgArmy cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. (U.S. Army)

This winter, the Air Force, as the Pentagon’s point agency for Internet operations –“cyberwarfare,” in military jargon – banned access from official networks to many blogs, declaring that they weren’t “established, reputable media.” The Air Force didn’t seem concerned that America’s greatest enemies, international jihadists, had long ago latched onto websites as cheap, effective tools for sharing ideas.

Indeed, the Air Force’s ban was part of a widening military crackdown on so-called “Web 2.0” Internet sites, including blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, all often grouped together as “social media,” because of their potential for easy, global communication. Mostly, Website-banning Pentagon officials were worried that U.S. troops, in using these popular Web 2.0 sites, might inadvertently release secret information on the Internet.

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

To many in the military, the need for secrecy outweighed the Internet’s value for rapidly and widely sharing ideas. While jihadists built entire intelligence and recruiting machines online, huge swaths of the U.S. military were walling themselves off from the Internet.

But not entirely.

The Army cleverly dodged the bans, setting up its own versions of popular Web 2.0 sites, but hiding them behind password-protected portals. In that way, the Army appears to have found a middle ground between Internet proponents and skeptics. On this toehold, the land combat branch is steadily building new Internet tools that might help the United States catch up to Internet-savvy jihadists. In late April, the land-warfare branch even launched an official blogging service for officers. The blogs combine the best of the civilian Web 2.0 with old-fashioned military-grade security.

In the Pentagon’s tangle of agencies and advocacies, there’s rarely total consensus on any issue. So for every move to tamp down on free-wheeling Internet communication, there have also 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 the use of the Internet for sharing information and ideas -– both within the armed services and with civilians. The Army has emerged least damaged by this civil war; the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard all take big steps backwards for every small step forward online.

It didn’t take long for Congress to take note of the tug-of-war over Internet use. The Pentagon’s social media ban prompted Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to write Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May 2007 to express “concern that … the regulations may also inadvertently weaken what has proven to be a significant asset in our media age.” DeMint, a conservative, appeared to be acting on complaints from his large military constituency, the youngest of whom have grown up with the Internet always at their fingertips.

At the time, one low-profile team of Army officers, effectively siding with DeMint, was quietly working on an official military version of the popular social-networking site MySpace, with the aim of giving young officers a forum for keeping track of each other during widespread deployments.

This “military MySpace,” like the civilian version, would include “status update[s], private message[s], and [the] ability to add ‘members I value’ to your own profile,” according to Maj. Ray Kimball, one of a handful of officers at the Center for Company-Level Leaders, a sort of Internet advocacy group at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

The military MySpace – call it “MilSpace” – would eventually include the previously mentioned blogging function, allowing officers to develop and share ideas and tactics without necessarily having to work through the military’s lumbering, labyrinthine and strictly hierarchical chain of command. MilSpace and its blogs are part of a network of online discussion forums, created by the Center for Company-Level Leaders, that Lt. Col. Tony Burgess, Kimball’s boss, called a “virtual front porch” for hosting soldiers’ conversations.

The forums have their roots in the late 1990s, when they were a private project overseen by several young officers. In 2002 the Army officially sanctioned the forums. After months of work, the MilSpace addition went live in January this year, and the blogging function launched in late April. With each successive new feature, this “virtual front porch” has gained new users, new admirers in the senior ranks and a more prominent position in the Army’s emerging Internet strategy. “I would definitely characterize it [the Mil-Space blogs] as a success,” Kimball told The Washington Independent. “Anecdotally, conversations are more vibrant than they’ve ever been.”

Kimball attributes much of his organization’s successes to consistent support from the Army’s graduate-level academic establishment centered on Ft. Leavenworth, Kans. The top general at Leavenworth, William Caldwell, even announced in May that blogging would be part of the formal graduate curriculum going forward.

MilSpace represents the kinds of long-term solutions likely to result from the Pentagon’s internal Internet struggle. The military will develop its own Net tools, similar to the civilian versions, optimized for spreading ideas and information more quickly. But the armed services may restrict access to some tools in an effort to keep the ideas and information out of the wrong hands.

A coherent military Internet strategy can’t come soon enough: America’s enemies continue to take huge leaps forward online. In May, The New York Times profiled a Belgian woman, Malika El Aroud, who runs Al Qaeda online recruiting campaigns from her home office, using popular Internet forums. Some critics have questioned whether such online campaigns work. They do, according to a January report from the Combating Terrorism Center, a New York-based policy organization. “People [were] deciding to pick up arms after spending time on the forums,” editor Erich Marquardt told The New York Sun.

“It is now possible for them [Islamic extremists] to communicate instantly with supporters (or potential supporters) in nearly all parts of the world,” the nonprofit EastWest Institute reported in February.

EastWest, which has offices in New York, Brussels and Moscow, also pointed out that “as powerful as the Internet may be for violent extremists, cyberspace is a neutral vehicle for the rapid transfer of ideas, beliefs and agendas. Thus it can, and must, be used by those seeking to counter violent extremism.”

That’s a lesson that many within the military have been slow to learn. Only the Army, with its compromise approach balancing the free exchange of ideas with the need for security, seems to truly appreciate the Internet’s value – something jihadists understood years ago.

Part One of Three

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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