Oct. 31, 2006 — -- Frustrated by the media's coverage of the war in Iraq, which they felt left out the good and instead focused on grim body counts and gory car bombings, two brothers from Texas decided to put out the message they thought wasn't getting through in the form of a blog, TankerBrothers.com.
"Master Gunner" and his younger brother "Cav Tanker," who prefer not to use their real names, are two soldiers from Texas serving in tank divisions in the U.S. Army and running one of the hundreds of military blogs, or milblogs, maintained by service men and women.
The blogs offer people back home a view of the war zone through the soldiers' eyes. For Master Gunner, the milblog movement is a vital tool in keeping the public accurately informed.
"After every war, we celebrate the letters and words of American soldiers sent back to their families," he wrote in an e-mail. "Movies and documentaries are made about them. This is the first war where you can see our thoughts and words right in front of you, in near real-time. You can read about the schools we helped open last week or the graduation of hundreds of Iraqi policemen that we'll patrol with. And you can read it from the words of the guys that are right there."
But while the blogs serve an important public relations function, they also represent a source of great concern for the Army. Fearful of operational security, or OPSEC, violations that could even inadvertently disseminate sensitive information to the enemy, the Pentagon has ordered some blogs to shut down and other milbloggers are calling it quits for fear their sites might get them in trouble.
Ten members of the Virginia National Guard have a new mission: keeping an eye on their peers. Under the banner of the World War I warning, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," the team's job is to monitor milblogs.
Under the direction of the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell, Army Office of Information Assurance and Compliance, the team scans the blogs for classified or sensitive information that could put soldiers' lives at risk and jeopardize military missions on the ground.
"This is a real fumble on the one-yard line -- the military is really shooting themselves in the foot," said Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of DefenseTech.org. "Rumsfeld is complaining that the American media doesn't' get enough positive stories out about Iraq. But here you have 150,000 soldiers, most of whom are very positive about their mission, think they're doing good work and most would like to talk about that further."
But a spokesperson for the Army says that while commanding officers in theaters of war around the world may choose to tighten some restrictions on these blogs for soldiers under their command, there is no overarching push to censor the milblogs or prevent them from being read.
"We do understand that the blogs are a way for soldiers to contact families, to document some of their experiences and we're not doing anything on the Amy level to discourage that," said Eric Horin, a spokesperson for the Army. "But a soldier could be posting what he thinks is a very innocuous picture, but something in the background may show the enemy a vulnerability."
Master Gunner says the rules are pretty clear for soldiers who want to blog. In an interview with The Associated Press, he offered up this list of questions he asks himself before posting anything to his site:
"If a Milblogger thinks about the things that he writes, and applies some common-sense rules, then he really has very little to worry about," he wrote. "Here are some sample questions I ask myself before I write or publish a post:
He says that his first responsibility is to the Army, his mission and his fellow soldiers and that if he wrote something that put any of those things in jeopardy, he simply wouldn't post it and would even be willing to delete the entire blog.
There are about 1,200 milblogs online right now, but some experts believe that won't last.
"The military needs to pull their heads out of their asses," says Matthew Currier Burden, author of "Blog of War," who operates a blog named "Blackfive" and who is a former paratrooper and Army officer. "I think it's needed [milblogs] in order to win this war, to hear these voices and understand the soldiers' experience. Otherwise, you just have the daily al Qaeda car bombings."
Burden's been documenting the rise and what he says is the impending fall of military blogs for about 10 years. He says they are one of the best public relations tools the Pentagon has, and while he agrees with their need to have rules and regulations to keep sensitive information from even inadvertently being disseminated, he doesn't agree with the way the military is handling the milblog issue.
"I would guess that there are less than a few dozen blogging from Iraq or Afghanistan and, of those, about four are shutting down per week," Burden wrote in an e-mail. "Some bloggers heading to Iraq are being shut down before they leave for Kuwait."
The military's fear, according to Burden, is less that an individual blog may lead to dire circumstances, but that a handful of soldiers blogging about the same event from different perspectives could be pieced together to give the enemy information they're not supposed to have.
The Department of Defense says the decision to clamp down on the blogs of service people in the war zone was a decision made by a commanding officer at Central Command and that the Virginia team was created by the Army. Pentagon officials say that while they do not have an official "blog-specific" policy, they stand firmly against the dissemination of operational information to the public, regardless of the format.
An article in the Army News Service from Oct. 12, 2006, quoted a member of the Virginia National Guard team now charged with monitoring Army Web sites.
"I have friends in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan," Sgt. Yaphet Benton said in the article. "Once I started this mission, I saw a lot of things that can endanger a lot of soldiers. I see a lot of bios, pictures, names and birthdates. I consider that critical. Terrorists (and persons trying to steal your identity) can use that information."
But in the effort to keep sensitive information off the Internet, the military is also generating frustration among some blogging soldiers and muzzling what many agree is an important propaganda tool.
"The effect of the guidance [tighter regulations] has been to restrict the majority of military blogs and put an end to some blogs altogether," writes Burden in his book, "The Blog of War." "Many have gone 'dark' -- letting their blog registrations expire and the content disappear -- bits and bytes no more -- rather than face censorship. Others have followed the new OPSEC guidance and continue to blog but no longer post photos or stories about their experiences. And still others ignore the new rules, hoping to 'fly under the radar' and not be noticed by those searching for violators."
The restrictions are something that Shachtman, who's reported on the milblogs extensively on DefenseTech.org and for Wired News, just doesn't get.
"Soldiers are briefed on what is and is not classified and they're trained on operational security," explains Shachtman. "All of these guys are given much bigger responsibilities beyond blogging, they're handed M16s and trusted with matters of life and death."
Master Gunner says he sees no uprising of milbloggers and that the rules are there for everyone's protection. He just wants the opportunity to fill in the blanks he thinks are left by the mainstream media in it's coverage of the war on terror.
"I'm not going to tell you that our blog is 'important' because it's much bigger than that," he wrote. "TankerBrothers.com could go away forever, and there will still be hundreds, thousands, of soldiers who will work tirelessly to get the real story of the Iraq War out. They'll tell the American public about the different projects we're working on to bring comfort and security to the Iraqi People, and they will tell you about the thousands of Bad guys that they are responsible for killing or capturing. But most importantly, they will tell you about the deep sense of frustration we all feel when we get slapped in the face when all the good news is ignored. I've been called a 'warmonger,' I've been insulted, etc... but I don't care. Because if just one person gets informed, then I've done what I set out to do."