Thursday, October 19, 2006

OPSEC Versus Censorship

A hat tip to the incomparable Michelle Malkin, for her heads-up on this post at Blackfive, concerning U.S. Army efforts to crack-down on military bloggers. According to a recent press release, the Army has created an operations security (OPSEC) unit--part of the Virginia National Guard--to monitor soldiers' unofficial blogs and websites, looking for information that may compromise security.

The Army claims the Manassas-based unit has discovered a number of items that could prove valuable to the enemy, including biographies, pictures and personal information. The unit also looks for such terms as "for official use only," "secret" and "top secret," and apparently makes referrals for further investigation.

Blackfive sees a slightly sinister hand behind all of this, and I tend to agree. While no one disputes the need for security, the monitoring effort also smacks at censorship, giving the Army brass an opportunity to shut down websites (and punish bloggers) that don't hew to the party line. He notes that several milbloggers have run afoul of the miltary bureaucracy, particularly Public Affairs Officers (PAOs), who have been the traditional vehicle for releasing information. Blackfive warned the PAOs against "cracking down" on military bloggers at a conference last April, and apparently paid for his sins by being "chased down" and lectured by a group of public affairs types after the forum.

As Blackfive observes, soldiers' blogs provide a very useful--an important--source of information on military operations. And more importantly, they are often far more nimble (and responsive) than the PAOs, who are seemingly mired in the pre-internet world. True, most military units have their own websites, but they're usually crammed with official photos and other PR-filler, sometimes posted days or even weeks after the event.

Consider Blackfive's current post on a CNN story about the jihadist sniper threat in Iraq. Casual viewers would assume that enemy snipers are exacting a heavy toll among our troops in the Sunni triangle, reinforcing the recurring media theme about rising U.S. casualties in Iraq. Not only does Blackfive nail the obvious slant to the story, he also points out the network's careful placement of the piece, which ran just before a segment on American troops accused of rape and murder in Iraq. I don't need to explain the inferences made by running those stories back-to-back.

So where's the public affairs response to this? I'm sure there may be a protest from the Pentagon, and (eventually) some PA package on our own sniper teams. But by the time that report hits the web, AFRTS, or even some MSM outlet, the impact will have been blunted by the passage of time. If the military wants to compete in the arena of information and ideas--and it must--it needs a mechanism to response to enemy propaganda, quickly and effectively. Fact is, coalition casualties from jihadist snipers are dwarfed by the number of terrorists killed by our own sniper teams. If Al-Jazerra runs video of U.S. troops being shot by a sniper, we need to provide an effective counter-point, or (better yet), get out in front of the issue, and post an entire archive of our own sniper kills. The libs and the MSM will probably howl, but that's to be expected. Besides, if one of our PAO goals is to be "liked" by the NYT and WaPo, we need a new set of priorities.

Fact is, the terrorists are ahead of us in the realm of information operations. If you don't believe me, consider Hizballah's recent success against Israel. Depending on your point of view, the terrorist army either (a) more than held its own, or (b) defeated the region's preeminent military power, largely through a mix of denial and deception and information operations. The bad guys view their IO efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a template for future operations. We'd better find an effective way to respond--and zealous scrutiny of milblogs isn't the answer.

6 comments:

Mike said...

The Pentagon just doesn't get it...our center of gravity is our political will, which is true in any war but more so in low-intensity ops ranging around the globe against an elusive and poorly defined enemy. As such, PAOs are probably more important than shooters out killing jihadis. But you wouldn't know that by the way they act.

Spook86 said...

In fairness to the PAOs, many understand the need for a new approach, and are hamstrung by commanders and civlian leaders who simply don't "get it."

On the other hand, the military has traditionally done a poor job of recruiting and training PAOs. I knew one who was a former volleyball coach at the Air Force Academy; he was a pretty good coach, but a lousy PAO. I've known other phys ed majors who made the migration to public affairs as well. No slam against the P.E., business, or engineering majors who wind up in PA, but today's media enviroment demands public affairs leaders who at least have some grounding in the media, beyond that 13-week initial training course.

Not only does the military need a public affairs corps for the 21st century, they also need to learn to work with the info ops community. But if you mention that as a serious proposal, many PAOs will call you a heretic, because IO includes propaganda, psyops and information management, and the "honest brokers" of P.A. can't be associated with that sort of stuff. Meanwhile, Al Jazerra and thousands of jihadi websites run rings around the Pentagon.

Wanderlust said...

I'd imagine that the truth lies somewhere between a Pentagon/PAO paradigm that is mired in the pre-Internet days, as you've said, and a PAO organization that feels towards bloggers like dinosaurs felt towards their successors, as it were.

Ironically, I think the best summary of the threat landscape comes from a line in the movie "Sneakers", about how the most important currency of all is information. Used correctly, information is a currency that can create, or destroy, without a bullet ever having been fired.

Wasn't that what Sun Tsu was trying to teach us, so many centuries ago?

José Joseph said...

"Blackfive sees a slightly sinister hand behind all of this, and I tend to agree. While no one disputes the need for security, the monitoring effort also smacks at censorship..."

Hello! You've been watching too much Hollywood. Where's your head at? It looks to me like some educating needs to be done here, and that's what this is about. It's not anything "sinister"! If mil-bloggers are inadvertently revealing trade scerets that jeopardize safety, then they need to learn how to be safe bloggers. In this instance, censorship is as important as armored vests and helmets. But first someone has to track the leaks down and figure out what's being leaked.

This is so common-sensical that I don't understand how you can think of it as "sinister".

Mike said...

Anecdote time, re: PAOs. A motivated and rather smart cadet here at ISU was a communications major and WANTED to go into PA. The USAF, in its infinite wisdom, sent her out to Vanderberg to be a Space and Missiles Officer, and now she's heading off to F.E. Warren to sit in silos.

Sometimes I just shake my head...don't even get me started on the meteorology major who was originally slated to go to a Comms officer slot until he got a 2-star to go to bat for him...

Dymphna said...

Hmmm...this kind of "publicity" for Army publicists isn't going to jibe very well with the campaign the Army is rolling out in November. I believe the new one is going to be "Army Strong"...replacing that narcissistic "Army of One".

What MOS do you have to have to make this stuff up? It'll be all too easy to turn this one, in very short order, into "Army Stupid."

Well, what can we expect from what John Boyd called "The Building"?

BTW, and off-topic, are you planning to post on the bash book,
Ghost Plane:The True Story of the CIA Torture Program ?

Obviously, it's one of the countless October revelations meant to influence the elections, but I wondered what you know about the author, Stephen Grey?