Button Your Lip, MilBlogger:
Why the Army is Right…and Conservative Bloggers are Wrong

After Noah Shachtman, of the excellent Danger Room blog, about the Army’s stringent new regulations for online communications, the conservative blogosphere exploded in protest against the order. I propose that these bloggers consider how they would react upon hearing the following two statements:Button Your Lip!

1) The editors of the Washington Post released details about operational security in their newspaper that may have led to the deaths of 14 American soldiers.

2) A group of milbloggers released details about operational security on their blogs that may have led to the deaths of 14 American soldiers.

Imagine the reaction if the editors of the Post were to justify such an irresponsible move based on their right to “freedom of expression” or the American public’s need to “know what’s going on in Iraq.” We would rightly consider such rationalization indefensible. So why are the same arguments being used to excuse milbloggers who are able to have a far more deleterious impact?
Operations security is necessary to protect “critical information from adversary observation and collection in ways that traditional security programs cannot.” As the Army regulation explains, “the OPSEC process identifies the critical information of military plans, operations, and supporting activities and the indicators that can reveal it, and then develops measures to eliminate, reduce, or conceal those indicators.” Maintaining OPSEC has always been essential to winning wars and preventing unnecessary casualties.
My friend Ed Morrissey acknowledges that OPSEC is important but claims that “no one has any evidence that milbloggers have violated Opsec orders in their communications.” This is a stunning claim, for anyone who understands what OPSEC entails and has read enough milblogs knows that isn’t the case. In fact, the Army has an unclassified PowerPoint presentation that provides an example of what they are trying to prevent [emphasis and commentary added]:

“It is Monday again and we are still at K-2 airfield in Bayji [location]. As a squadron [size and type of unit], we are ‘demonstrating a military presence.’ [type of action] That means the troops set up checkpoints and stop hundreds of cars, searching them and the people. [explanation of tactical reasoning] They keep taking these ‘detainees’ or EPWs and I have partial responsibility for the ‘jail’, which is a building here on the airfield. [provides notice of prisoner location on base] But we are not set up for this. MPs are supposed to come and get them almost immediately but they take a while. [Elucidates point of tactical weakness] Plus the Civil Affairs/Counter Intelligence teams that are supposed to talk to them don’t know crap and the whole thing borders on a war crime. I am just trying to find blankets and light and medical care for the prisoners. [provides propaganda from an American solider “admitting to war crimes.”]

As any small-unit leader will tell you, this is the type of information that gets men killed.
The PowerPoint presentation also shows photos taken by a soldier and posted on his blog that were later used on a Jihadist site to expose weaknesses and areas for exploitation on American tanks and armored vehicles. Such information may seem trivial to civilians, but it is worth more than gold to a terrorist.
Unfortunately, my fellow conservatives appear to overlook or downplay this danger in order to defend the role of the milblogger as a counter to the mainstream media’s coverage of the war. For example, another friend, Hugh Hewitt, writes:

I find this decision to be so amazingly ill-informed about how the milblogs have served the war effort and the cause of the military as to raise real doubts about the military’s ability to ever get ahead of the enemy in the information war.

Syd And Vaughn from The Asylum, make a similar point:

The Army is supposedly citing operational security for the changes. I agree with others in the ‘sphere: Following rules for the sake of the rules doesn’t win the war, nor does it help the troops…. But as yet, this excuse hasn’t been proven. No operation has been blown because of this sort of reporting. No operational intelligence has been displayed for all to see. The enemy isn’t going to gain anything from the majority of these posts.

Michelle Malkin also, unhelpfully, comments: “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
I am saddened and dismayed by the reaction by my fellow conservatives. The same people who denounce the Democrats “second-guessing” of the generals on what is needed to effectively fight the war are now second-guessing the generals on what is needed to effectively fight the war — and keep the troops alive.
Let me be clear. I love milbloggers. I was one myself before I left the Marines (though I was not a “warblogger” in a combat zone). But the job of our American soldiers is not to win the “information war” or to provide “unbiased, indifferent view of the war” or even to “tell the truth about The Long War.” The job of American soldiers is to win the war. That can’t be done when the enemy is being fed critical information through the blogosphere.
Instead of criticizing the addition of common sense restrictions, my fellow conservative bloggers should be asking why this change wasn’t implemented years ago. How many times do we have to read about the enemy being an “adaptive, cunning, and learning adversary … unlike most previous experiences” before we figure out where the terrorists are getting their information from? The question that should be asked is how many soldiers lives had to be lost do to poor OPSEC before the generals realized they needed to tell milbloggers to “button your lip!”
UPDATE: Hugh, who was kind enough to link to this post, wrote “I hope Joe will consider the arguments I make in the [Townhall] column.” I have and appreciate the chance to respond
Hugh is essentially making an argument for technological exceptionalism – new technology is beneficial, therefore it should be exempt from long established rules and norms. I disagree. Blogging has certainly been beneficial to the war effort but it has also empowered the enemy. In WWII, Japan and Germany had to expend a considerable amount of effort and personnel to breach OPSEC. Now, any terrorist who can read English and has an internet connection can set up his own mini-intelligence gathering agency.
Hugh says “there’s no public record of milblogging leading to loss of life or compromise of a plan.” To this I would recommend that Hugh read this message on OPSEC guidance that was sent out by the Army’s chief of staff in August 2005. At that time violations of OPSEC were already leading to a compromise of our capabilities.
Hugh says, “I doubt very much if “the generals” ever sat around and thought this through.” This is a surprisingly disrespectful claim. Contrary to the depictions in movies, the Army’s General corps is staffed by some of the brightest, most forward thinking men and women in our country. They are not the type who issue commands without thinking them through. And if they are so incompetent that they can’t be trusted to make such a low-level decision, why are they in command in the first place?
Hugh says, “I also doubt if the generals think much about the milbloggers’ role in the information war at home.”
Whether they have or not is irrelevant. Our soldiers can’t be expected to fight a two-front war: one in Iraq and one with the MSM. The primary concern of those who truly “support the troops” should be ensuring that they are able to fight effectively and with as minimal a loss of life as possible.

“Operational Security” concerns are said to be behind the ban, but I know of no breach that has led to an injury or a death, and as retired Marine Corps Mike McBride said on my program, some casualties would be acceptable in light of the huge benefit the milblogs and e-mails are bringing to the war effort.

With all do respect to my fellow Marine, McBride should be taken out behind the woodshed for making such an insensitive comment. The “benefit the milblogs and e-mails” is not worth the loss of life of our men and women in uniform. They aren’t pawns in a propaganda game with the MSM. And what exactly is this “benefit”? Has the public opinion of the war truly been swayed by milbloggers? If so, then why is so much of the American public still misinformed and/or unsupportive of the war effort?
Hugh refers to the move as, “an out-of-the-blue lightening bolt of censorship just doesn’t strike those of us who have been reading the milbloggers since before the war began as an expression of concern over security.”
In August 2005, a number of the most prominent milbloggers wrote about and expressed their concern over violations of OPSEC in the blogosphere. Dadmanly wrote:

Frankly, much of the most popular (“live action”) combat reporting on the web makes me nervous. Many of these young men (and women) are not at all careful or discrete about their identities, unit compositions, and even very minute operational details. All of us understand how popular such accounts are, people back home and even fellow soldiers are really hungry for knowledgeable front line reporting. But this same accuracy and realism may be providing our enemies — who gain some advantage they wouldn’t otherwise have if we ignore their collection or reconnaissance capabilities — with useful information for planning more effective attacks (and by the way, allowing them at least some useful battle damage assessment (BDA) information).

John from Argghhh! Acknowledged that it could be a problem and admitted to having inadvertently made a clear OPSEC violation on his blog. Blackfive even predicted that “in the future, Military Blogging would be severely restricted.”
Two years later the prediction is coming true. That is hardly “out-of-the-blue.”
Finally, as Dadmanly wrote almost two years ago:

I would hate to think that good OPSEC might interfere with what is some of the best reporting available on our great efforts in Iraq. But I likewise think that MILBLOGGERS need to carefully (and prayerfully) consider if, in the interest of feeding a hungry audience, we likewise satisfy an avaricious enemy. This is an enemy who knows how and where to get information vital to making his efforts against us more deadly and effective, and knows how and where and to whom to get this information into the hands of those who would harm us.
If we ignore this responsibility, aren’t we doing the same as the big media we so frequently criticize? In the interest of “hits” and traffic (equivalent after all to ratings or circulation), we go for the gritty detail, and disregard real and significant concerns about whether this in some way increases the danger to our soldiers?

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • http://rustylopez.typepad.com/newcovenant/ Rusty

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Joe. While my initial reaction was similar to that of Malkin & Hewitt, I couldn’t help thinking about how terrorists adapt to the parameters of the West. That adaptive capability, when combined with our free society, provide them with a decided advantage.

  • jd

    I have often wondered how much information that would encourage people has been left unsaid because it would damage the war effort. I’m sure the Bush administration has had to keep a lid on good news simply because releasing it might kill people.
    It’s definitely a two-edged sword. We need to hear the encouraging news, because the constant negative news has an impact on people who only see television or newspapers. You actually have to look for the good news. On the other hand, milbloggers need to get some perspective and realize that what they write could get people killed. Freedom of the press also means a responsibility to decide what to print. If it damages the war effort or endangers soldiers it shouldn’t be printed.

  • http://www.marshianchronicles.com Louie

    This post is yet another reason why you
    are my favorite conservative blogger! I
    should have thought of this – but didn’t –
    I’m glad you did!
    Hang tough brother and keep thinking

  • Don

    I get your point on OPSEC, Joe. Couple thoughts:
    – My (respectful) criticism of the Army COS’s policy is that it’s being done without acknowledging that we’re losing the I/O war in Iraq (badly). Other than milbloggers I don’t see any systematic way for the military to counter negative MSM/beltway spin. Certainly the jihadists are using the web to their advantage. Looks like the Army is going Alamo (ie: barring themselves inside an electronic fort).
    – Those kids and their families have come to depend on email vice snail mail to deal with deployment. Can’t imagine what this is going to do to morale.
    – I’ve seen comments elsewhere along the line that the real reason for this policy is the negative posts and emails to or regarding certain members of Congress and the Senate. Cynical, yes, but I think it’s a more rational explanation than an Army come-to-jesus moment on operational security.

  • http://www.gryphmon.com Patrick (gryph0

    With all do respect to my fellow Marine, McBride should be taken out behind the woodshed for making such an insensitive comment. The “benefit the milblogs and e-mails” is not worth the loss of life of our men and women in uniform. They aren’t pawns in a propaganda game with the MSM. And what exactly is this “benefit”? Has the public opinion of the war truly been swayed by milbloggers? If so, then why is so much of the American public still misinformed and/or unsupportive of the war effort?

    Yeah but….
    Joe, its not a propaganda “game”, it is a war. And the DOD has spectacularly sucked at it in this conflict.
    And I want to point out that there is nothing preventing soldiers from coming home and publishing their blog in a book. Many are doing so.
    But it seems to me that the risk from millblogging is minuscule in comparison to other security issues. The LA Times did a series on how reporters in Afghan were regularly able to walk out the gates of the FOB, down the street to a local market, and easily purchase laptops, USB keys, Portable data drives, etc. that had been swiped from the base. And that held classified data including mission plans etc. And weeks after the story was published, you could still find these items on the market.

  • Amanda

    I appreciate this thoughtful response to the challenge of OPSEC. My husband is active duty (nearly 15 yrs.) and downrange, and while I find our limited communications challenging, I certainly DO NOT feel comfortable with the amount of information freely flowing home! It is dangerous. America tends to be especially naive as to the dangers this new techno era of communications has created for our military leadership.
    I know for certain that OPSEC is violated every single day. Whether via phone calls, email, instant messaging or blogging. I agree that the Army has failed miserably in getting out their message. But milbloggers do not help in getting a coherent Army message out except in rare instances.
    Too many military members possess an overrated estimation of their own opinions and experience, which only provides incomplete, and many times, skewed views in a very complex and large scale military campaign.
    While every last one of our military members has a mission that is essential for our success, not every last one of our military members should possess equally empowering voices.
    Their messages may never have the intent to harm. I know that many want Americans to see the good they are doing that isn’t being reported in the liberal media. They feel frustrated that the media has failed them, and they need to promote the realities of their situation.
    Each member is serving at great personal sacrifice. This becomes an emotionally charged argument because we never want their patriotism and valor to be dishonored. Many have earned their voices in blood. However, this is not about patriotism nor about protecting the democratic rights of our patriots. The military cannot operate as a democracy. It’s about being on guard and protecting our patriots, and their families, from harm.
    Our elected officials also have a responsiblity to address the continual bleeding of secret information that The New York Times and others have revealed. It ought to be considered a criminal act of treason. The power of communications technology is another weapon in our arsenal, but also a nuclear tool for terrorists and agenda-driven media and political agents as well. We’ve got a much bigger problem than milbloggers.
    Having said all that, I believe that the Army must wrestle with this complex task of maintaining OPSEC and the American public should trust it’s military leaders to work this out. They don’t possess the time nor the desire to malevolently control the individual rights of soldiers. They are focused on accomplishing the mission and bringing soldiers home alive.
    Let’s practice democracy in civilian life and take our elected leaders to task for using and manipulating the tentative position of our military men and women overseas to further their political agendas.
    And as to morale. The greatest destroyer of morale is not the limitations of communications with my husband, it’s politics in Washington.

  • tess

    Thank you for this post. My husband is about to deploy to Iraq and we both agree with everything you’ve written here. I’ve been very disappointed by the yellow-ribbon wearing conservatives who believe that the “war” with the mainstream media is somehow worth endangering my husband’s life.
    Ditto everything Amanda said, too.

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