The Pentagon isn’t trying to destroy the connectivity that Soldiers have with their loved ones, but rather preserve the information network during a time of war, a senior military official suggested to a group of bloggers (including yours truly) on a conference call yesterday.
Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight, a Pentagon flag officer in charge of global network operations, repeatedly referred to the blocked sites as “recreational” in nature, while only casually admitting that public affairs offices and recruiters routinely use these sites to achieve mission objectives.
The Admiral had some valid points: the ban only applied to official military computers and servicemembers are free to use these sites on personal computers (assuming they have access to them). The military also wants to ensure that the network can be maintained for operational requirements. Commanders were free to issue waivers to allow use of these sites for operational reasons (namely for use by PAOs and recruiters).
However, she admitted that the blocked sites had yet to cause a bandwidth problem on the global grid; this was merely a “proactive” measure to prevent such an event from occurring.
What the Admiral didn’t answer, in my mind, was the bigger strategic question of why the military prioritized a potential threat to the network over a guaranteed benefit to the DoD’s information battle. Beyond this connectivity providing a morale boost for troops, it also has significant benefit in helping to tell the military story.
Yes, PAOs will have access to these sites. And yes, servicemembers can use them (if they can get to a computer where they can access them.) But the value of these blocked sites — and all of Web 2.0 — is for grassroots users to come together organically and share their experience. By restricting access to YouTube and MySpace, the military is also restricting the ability of any servicemember to help engage in the “hearts and minds” war.
When I worked at OCPA, we always said that the Soldier is our best spokesman. With training to ensure that they did not reveal classified information, they could be left to their own to eloquently tell the story of sacrifice and service for our nation. Unfortunately, the new policy to block access to these video and information sharing sites also undercuts the ability of these great soldiers to speak directly to the American people about what it means to serve.
Also troubling, she admitted that other sites that could pose a threat to military bandwidth could be restricted in the future, meaning that if popular blogging platforms like blogger and WordPress take up too many resources, they also could be restricted.
In spite of my concerns, I must applaud the Admiral and OSD PA. The openness they have taken toward bloggers is an important step in embracing new media that I never could have imagined while I worked in Army Public Affairs. Admiral Hight was trying to be as helpful as possible in explaining the policy, and for that, I know that all the bloggers on the call were appreciative.
Bottom line — the military has chosen to exert control over a space that is moving more and more toward sharing and free expression. And I can’t help but wonder if, while preserving network bandwidth, the DoD does so at its own peril.
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