Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Internet for the Military in Iraq

An ex-serviceman friend of a friend mentioned recently that he thought that internet access for American soldiers in Iraq may be censored to some extent - that certain sites may be deliberately blocked.

I wouldn't be surprised to find out that some level of control exists over email in order to prevent sensitive information from getting out. I'd also suspect that there are guidelines, at the very least, for soldiers who blog, in order to maintain secrecy over some issues.

I'm not certain that I buy the idea that outbound internet access might be censored/blocked/filtered for surfing soldiers.

Is this something that does occur? If so, how does it work? What sort of sites are being blocked and for what purpose? Does this happen to keep people away from message boards or other sites where it would be easy to share classified information? If the military isn't doing this, do you think that they should be?

Dadmanly Responds:

What a timely question. My unit just experienced our first communications black out. More on that in a moment.

There are two kinds of access available to Soldiers in Iraq. The first, available to most all Soldiers on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) and even some outposts, is a Segovia or other Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Center. These are phone and intenret centers where Soldiers can access the Internet for free over Segovia provided laptops.

Access to these devices is pretty wide open, but you're in a big room with laptops all next to each other, and there are signs warning that accessign pornographic websites is strictly prohibited. (Would be in violation of General Order #1, due to respect for Host Nation sensitivities, but also Military regulations against such material.) Soldiers can be punished for violations, but frankly, these are usually busy public places.

The signs up at these Internet Cafes also strongly caution Soldiers against sharing any operational details or information on Blogs or in email, and carefully list the type of information that could reveal valuable information to potential enemies.

No other censoring goes on in these Cafes (to my knowledge). They are run by a private contractor, and available to Military and Civilian contractors. They may have products such as websense installed, but I haven't seen any evidence of that. We have a cafe in one of our living quarters, and we had occasion to catch one of our soldiers violating the rule against explicit material (quite accidentally, in the course of investigating some lost equipment), so I don't know how pervasive or robust the blocking software is.

The second avenue for Internet access is via a Wide Area Network (WAN) Proxy connection to the Internet. This is available in many of our offices and a few of the living quarters of leadership (myself included). As this connectivity comes through a firewall onto the WAN we use for our regular administrative email and office local area network (LAN), the Army has recently completed installation of Websense. This prevents connecting to Pornographic and Streaming Video sites. To my knowledge, it doesn't block anything else. (Nor would there be any interest in doing so.)

Streaming video is blocked because the WAN is at max capacity, bandwidth is at a premium, and more sophisticated network communicationsare not yet available. We can access Iraqi satellite providers, but that's discouraged. Could result in access to the no-no sites, and local vendors are come and go. Come and take the money, go away and not come back when there's problems. Customer Service has not yet evolved in Iraq.

Back to my opening remark. We suffered a brief rocket attack on our FOB, and by a very unfortunate and probably random freakishness, the trajectory let one of the rockets hit in a very narrow space that had not been properly protected. Two officers from our Parent Division were injured, and thouigh evacuated immediately, died of their wounds.

As is the practice here, the Command shuts down phone and internet connections for 24-48 hours, long enough for the Military to contact affected families.

Let me tell you why that is so important.

One of the idiots here who doesn't understand the very good reasons for the blackout, placed an anonymous call just before the blackout was imposed, saying 4 soldiers of our Division were killed, maybe more injured.

An equally idiotic (no, make that even more idiotic) news editor or reporter called Mrs. Dadmanly at home, told her about the anonymous tip, and asked her if she had heard any news?

Needless to say, with the rest of us on blackout, my wife was a basket case, as were many other family members and friends. Since the news (based on this anonymous tip) was immediately reported on local news and amplified by CNN, the military authorities in our Rear Detachment were forced to send out an email confirming that soldiers were injured, but that no further information could be made available until families had been notified. Which just scared and upset more families and friends of Soldiers in our Division, because (thanks to HIPAA restrictions), the Army can't reveal any medical information without patient consent.

My wife had to wait until the blackout was lifted to find out if I had been injured. Or if others in my unit had been hurt or killed.

Freedom of the press is a right that bears an attendant responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility is gravely important.

It isn't exactly "First, do no harm," but that wouldn't be a bad place to start. Some news can wait a day or two. Unless of course you're the unfortunate family that gets the personal visit to your home. The rest of you can wait.

UPDATE By Dadmanly: Posted as Covered Dish Special at Basil's Blog.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger RepubAnon said...

No arguments here - through I'm surprised that something like WebSense ISN'T installed on all the Internet access provided to our troops. "Loose lips sink ships" isn't just for WW-2 any more - and ALL mail sent by GIs in war zones has traditionally been censored to preserve operational security.

If web sites were blocked based upon political ideology, that would be different. However, several lefty-type blogs have commenters allegedly in Iraq, so that doesn't seem likely.

Dadmanly is right to object to overeager scoop-hungry journalists playing into the scum-sucker stereotype portrayed in the first two "Die Hard" movies and elsewhere. If dadmanly would care to share the identity of the person calling his wife so irresponsibly, this liberal would be happy to sponsor a write-in campaign telling them to back off attaching names to casualties. The public needs to know how many servicefolks get killed and injured - pictures of their grieving friends and relatives can always be obtained after they've been officially notified.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Synova said...

The public can wait to find out how many soldiers were killed until after family is notified as well. According to Dadmanly's story the first reports were that four people died when it was only two. Reporting rumors shows a disregard for the truth. So today it's four soldiers dead and a couple of days later when official reports are made it's two soldiers. The impact of that first report is still in the public consciousness. Likely enough, a good percentage of people will unconsciously number the total deaths at six. Four and then two.

Calling family members is beyond bad manners. Inaccurate reporting is something else. How many loonies are convinced that it *was* four and the military is munging the numbers?

Considering censorship in the interest of security... I don't know how a filter could be devised to accomodate OPSEC. It's not words that can be searched for. OPSEC is all those things that aren't classified, like how food is delivered to the mess hall, or any of the many mundane details of life. People *are* able to censor themselves (and in the case of the yahoo who called in the anonymous report, can be "censored" by the guys dealing with hysterical wives and girlfriends and parents) and can be trusted to do so, at least well enough, because they know that the "ship" that sinks may well be the one they are on.

I recently bookmarked yet another milblog... A Day In Iraq... and I think that it's an incredible thing. We can get "journals" from our soldiers complete with pictures nearly instantly.

And I have to say that it's a bit surreal to log in to play an MMRPG and kill dragons with a soldier in Bagdad. I suppose I'm old enough to boggle at how the world has changed. Likely enough young people don't even blink.


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