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Archive for July, 2007

This morning, I read Ken Silverstein’s latest contribution to Harpers Magazine criticizing the Pentagon’s blogger engagement program. He says that the program is designed to preach to conservatives and administration champions (even though I mentioned this week that I am on the list and by no means a conservative).

I was all set to critique his piece when Noah Shachtman (blogger/journalist and editor of Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog) e-mailed me the response he posted to Silverstein:

What’s more, Silverstein calls critical pieces which come out of the blogger conference calls — here’s one David Axe recently wrote for DANGER ROOM — “an exception that proves the rule. By invoking the rare critic, the Pentagon is able to say, ‘We’re balanced. This is not just a PR exercise.'”

Could be. But how hard is it, really, to get other critical voices added to the conference call list?

Well, it took exactly 23 minutes to get Jason “Armchair Generalist” Sigger and Matt “Mountain Runner” Armstrong signed up. And neither is what you would call a fan of this administration.

And Noah proceeds to publish the time stamped correspondence between him and Jack Holt, one of the Pentagon’s primary liaisons with the blogosphere.

Now THAT’S what I call journalism, Mr. Silverstein.

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Inquiring minds want to know…

This first came to my attention from a link on the Drudge Report this morning to an article in the New York Times. It appears to be another mainstream media scandal in the making, with people openly questioning the veracity of a supposed Soldier diarist currently deployed to Baghdad and writing some biting commentary for The New Republic.

Scott Thomas is his pseudonym — his name has been changed to give him anonymity — and in 2007, he has been published in the magazine three times, most recently yesterday. Since he first appeared, people have been questioning whether or not he is indeed who he says he is, or an impostor.

Consider some writing from his latest publication:

One private, infamous as a joker and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit. As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included.

Or this one:

“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.

I know Soldiers. I spent four years surrounded by them. They can be crass. They can be vulgar. But they are almost always fundamentally good. (There are a few bad apples — case in point, Abu Ghraib.) But Soldiers are in the military — and stay in the military — out of a sense of duty and service. People like that are not the monsters depicted in this short piece.

This does not sound like the Army I know. I suspect, for those of you who have served, or are around those who serve, this doesn’t sound like the Army you know either.

The New Republic is currently looking into the veracity of the stories they published, but say that they are “near certain” that he is, indeed, a Soldier.

Do you have any insight into who Scott Thomas is? Inquiring minds want to know…

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A journalist has tried to shine a spotlight on the Pentagon’s blogger relations program — and failed miserably.

Recent postings to Harpers.com (here and here) by Ken Silverstein suggest that the Pentagon is engaged in a propaganda campaign, managed by junior political appointees, to seed its message among conservative bloggers.

As someone who has participated in the “surrogate outreach” program, I can tell you first hand that Silverstein’s reporting is sensationalized drivel.

Who is running the show?

Mr. Silverstein makes much ado about a junior political appointee who supposedly runs the program named Erin Healy. She may have a toe dipped into the waters of online outreach, but I can tell you that if she does have anything to do with the program, it is cursory at best.

The real key player in the Pentagon’s online communications strategy is Roxie Merritt, a retired Navy Captain who was brought by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Allison Barber on to manage the Pentagon’s new media operations. Merritt is a savvy and seasoned professional communicator who understands the importance of online outreach. It is she, and not Healy, who is responsible for executing this program.

Political Leanings?

Despite Mr. Silverstein’s claim that the blogger engagement strategy is limited to righties and an occasional moderate, I have never, never, been mistaken for a conservative. (Proof in point — I was reading Harpers).

In a personal conversation at this year’s milblogging conference with Jack Holt, who helps orchestrate the program’s operations, he noted that they have been trying, with limited success, to reach out to liberal bloggers as well.

Granted, my blog does not carry a political tune. I try and keep my observations neutral, as I think that military communications should be devoid of politics. However, having corresponded with numerous staff members from blogger outreach team, I know that several are aware of my political ideology and personal opinion on the Iraq war. In spite of this, I continue to receive invitations to blogger conference calls.

For example, I was on the blogger call with a Navy admiral after the Pentagon’s decision to ban MySpace, YouTube and other social networking sites. Almost everyone on the call was critical of the decision, and the blog coverage reflected it.

A chilling effect?

I hope that the Pentagon’s new media operation takes this hit piece with a grain of salt (which I am sure they will considering the major errors in reporting).

OSD(PA) has made great strides in reaching out to and engaging online influencers. These new online opinion leaders are a key audience to communicate with — and the Pentagon should be applauded for including them in their communication planning, not vilified. From my experience, articles like these do nothing but chill creative communications programs.

Granted, the Pentagon’s outreach is not perfect. Silverstein’s point about the transparency of the program is valid. While most bloggers do disclose that they are getting information directly from Pentagon sources, not all do, so the Pentagon should specifically request that they disclose that fact on every conference call.

And the new media program has other blemishes, such as the For the Record “blog.”

Still, the online outreach program is OSD’s greatest success in dealing with new media. And all that these inaccurate Harpers “exposes” do is discourage communication innovation.

Next time, dig a little bit deeper to find the facts before you go to press, Mr. Silverstein.

Update: Grim’s post about the Harper’s piece at Blackfive. He looks at the article for its implied assumption that bloggers aren’t worthy of talking to the administration, only journalists are. Which I think is funny, given the gross errors in fact in his “journalism.”

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…Because the Air Force is getting close to launching “Cyber Command.”

Air Force Cyber Command is creating a foundation now for the combat Airmen of today and tomorrow, said Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., commander of 8th Air Force here and the joint functional component commander for Global Strike and Integration for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.

“What we have found for the Air Force is that everything that we do is integrally linked to what we do in cyberspace,” he said.

As the birth of Air Force Cyber Command comes closer to fruition this fall, the importance of cyberspace to today’s Airmen is even more important.

“Unlike other services where you can actually walk up to people and at least see them, we are doing operations globally — we are a global service,” General Elder said. “And, the way we connect all this together is through cyberspace.

“People hear quite often that we, the Air Force, believe in centralized control, decentralized execution,” the general said. “It is one of the things, I believe, that makes us a very effective and efficient service in terms of how we conduct our operations. We are able to do that because our control of cyberspace is so good. For us to be able to use our precision weapons, for us to be able to do the kinds of quick responses that deal with multiple targets, for example — it is all tied to how we work in cyberspace.”

Huh? After reading the article, I feel dumber. I have absolutely no clue what this new command will actually be doing.

Read of yourself. If you have any insight, I’d love to hear.

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D-Ring News Wire

Military files left unprotected online

Mike Baker, Associated Press

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Detailed schematics of a military detainee holding facility in southern Iraq. Geographical surveys and aerial photographs of two military airfields outside Baghdad. Plans for a new fuel farm at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The military calls it “need-to-know” information that would pose a direct threat to U.S. troops if it were to fall into the hands of terrorists. It’s material so sensitive that officials refused to release the documents when asked.

But it’s already out there, posted carelessly to file servers by government agencies and contractors, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

In a survey of servers run by agencies or companies involved with the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Associated Press found dozens of documents that officials refused to release when asked directly, citing troop security.

Such material goes online all the time, posted most often by mistake. It’s not in plain sight, unlike the plans for the new American embassy in Baghdad that appeared recently on the Web site of an architectural firm. But it is almost as easy to find.

And experts said foreign intelligence agencies and terrorists working with al-Qaida likely know where to look.

In one case, the Army Corps of Engineers asked the AP to promptly dispose of several documents found on a contractor’s server that detailed a project to expand the fuel infrastructure at Bagram — including a map of the entry point to be used by fuel trucks and the location of pump houses and fuel tanks. The Corps of Engineers then changed its policies for storing material online following the AP’s inquiry.

But a week later, the AP downloaded a new document directly from the agency’s own server. The 61 pages of photos, graphics and charts map out the security features at Tallil Air Base, a compound outside of Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq, and depict proposed upgrades to the facility’s perimeter fencing.

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Bad form, CBC

Canadian Broadcasting — what were you thinking?

Sorry, Noah.

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So while I was busy getting my affairs in order to close on my first home (yes, I am now officially a home owner!), I missed the big buzz around the danah boyd (all lowercase) blog essay about the social divisions inherent between MySpace and Facebook. For those who haven’t read the essay, she is basically trying to make an argument that class divisions manifest themselves in where people choose to associate online.

I nearly missed all the blogosphere buzz. There have been lots of comments made about her essay — some positive, some negative.

Luckily, I got an e-mail tip (that I finally got around to reading yesterday) from a great PR blogger from our neighbor to the north which pointed me to the essay and its comments about the military’s presence on social networking Web sites.

Her comments about the military — and the class divisions between officers and enlisted — are restricted to two paragraphs. And those who know me know I hate to play the critic. But when it comes to her ill-informed analysis of the military, there is much to be critical of.

Lets take this apart, shall we?

A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook.

The military banned 12 sites at the time — including MySpace and YouTube. I have written about this before, and I can can tell you for certain that the ban had nothing to do with class. The DOD claimed that the sites were taking up too much bandwidth, though my opinion is that some general had heard about MySpace and was scared that a Soldier would misuse it, so it was banned. Either way, not a class issue.

This was a very interesting move because the division in the military reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace; officers are on Facebook. Facebook is extremely popular in the military, but it’s not the SNS [social networking service] of choice for 18-year old soldiers, a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated communities.

I disagree with the premise. I did a quick search of the “United States Army” Network on Facebook, which has over 50,000 members. From the sample I examined (about 50), I found that more than half were enlisted, not officers.

Furthermore, I find the assumption that 18-year-old Soldiers are “poorer” and “less educated” insulting. This type of thinking is a symptom of the civil-military divide in our country — where people have uninformed assumptions about what it means to be a Soldier. People don’t enter the Army simply because “they can’t get into college” or “they aren’t smart” or “they don’t have other options.”

The officers, many of whom have already received college training, are using Facebook.

Here is where we get to the point. The link between Facebook and college. Up until recently, Facebook was only open to people with a .edu e-mail address. This isn’t the case anymore. So maybe Facebook once was an officer’s club (since officers needed to have a bachelor’s degree). But that is not the case any more.

Furthermore, there is a growing number of enlisted soldiers who are entering the service with an undergraduate degree.

As for a final note on boyd’s essay, she had one thought that I am still stewing on:

When I first started tracking soldiers’ MySpace profiles, I had to take a long deep breath. Many of them were extremely pro-war, pro-guns, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, pro-killing, and xenophobic as hell. Over the last year, I’ve watched more and more profiles emerge from soldiers who aren’t quite sure what they are doing in Iraq. I don’t have the data to confirm whether or not a significant shift has occurred but it was one of those observations that just made me think. And then the ban happened.

What are your thoughts on this shift?

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