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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

W. Mark Felt - Hero?

Yesterday W. Mark Felt was revealed to be the infamous "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame.

From your perspective, was Felt a hero?

Dadmanly Responds:

I note that as the Number 2 man at the FBI at the time, Felt arguably could have put a stop to dirty tricks within his own agency, and been a part of official reaction and punishment of wrongdoing. Lower in the organization, in some less directly involved agency, or outside the inner decision-making circles, all that’s been said would probably be justified.

Felt saying no to his superiors, and calling in the full weight and measure of the FBI’s own ample arsenal of oversight capabilities (or even Congress, if those self-policing organs were inadequate). That would have been heroic, would have achieved a better result that might have allowed the government to correct abuse within the system. That might have allowed the Government to demonstrate internal checks and balances within the system of Government.

Worst of all, he was one of the many cogs – and a pretty highly placed one at that – that lacked the courage of conviction and dedication to public trust to publicly and in the course of his official duties to say no to wrongdoing when first he had the chance. (Or when second, or third…)

Instead, Watergate and its aftermath created a nuclear blast in public mistrust and skepticism that persists to this day, and amply reflected in the conspiracy musings on both left and right. After all, our Government was capable of Watergate, and no one stopped it until some poor apparatchik blew the whistle. Some Apparatchik. He’s like the hit man goon who turns against his Mob boss for immunity from prosecution. Public Service? Yeah, if we ignore all those bodies stuffed in the trunk.

He could have said no to dirty tricks himself, but as the record shows, he was convicted later of much of what he "blew the whistle on."

Instead, he hid behind anonymity, and saved his career. With the death of J. Edgar Hoover only 6 weeks prior, and the known enmity between Nixon and Hoover, there is a strong reason to suspect this was as much due to bureaucratic infighting, than Felt's sense of public service.

He was right to have acted, wrong in his choice of method, morally deficient in not using the power and authority of his position – like so many others in this sad spectacle of Watergate – to stand up against wrongful use of position.

You might quibble with how much power he could have wielded, but we deal with this kind of issue in the military all the time.

Having said all that, a point of reference to military life.

Things happen which Soldiers think are wrong. They are strongly encouraged to use their chain of command (going to the boss). The intent is to give that leader a chance to take appropriate action. If unsatisfied with the response, the Soldier is entitled to bump it up a level. If all else fails, or the chain of command is entirely reluctant to address the wrong -- or doesn't view the offense as wrong -- the Soldier can then access the Inspector General, a ubiquitous ombudsman of sorts with direct access to all levels of command.

No command wants their attention if they might be in the wrong (or come out looking that way). Congressmen are very responsive, and a Soldier can always place a call or send a letter, and that Congressman will initiate a Congessional Investigation. These are incredibly painful to commanders, and usually end up firing up the entire Chain of Command (at least a little, from the SecDef on down). Lastly, and furthest outside, would be to notify the Press.

My point, Felt was in a position well suited to respond appropriately to wrong doing, but instead he went way outside the chain of command, and in the process, did vastly more harm to his organization (and prior and future employer by the way) than would have been the case had he stood up from within and done so publicly if necessary. Of course, this route was easier for him, and more beneficial.

That wipes the hero word right off the board, in my view.

Dadmanly Addendum:

I'm sorry, I didn't finish my point on the military example.

Early on, we had some very poor leadership decisions (higher than my Company), and several of our soldiers contacted the Inspector General (IG), which they were absolutely entitled to do. My Commander and I sat through several IG interviews and fact finding missions, and watched as eventually Division leadership must have brought down the hammer, and things lightened up.

But from that point forward, we used to joke that half the Joes had the IG on speed dial, because whenever we made any decisions that caused unpleasantness (and this is the Army, so there's lots of that), in would come the call from the IG, or they'd stop by for a visit.

Now my Commander, who is quite good, and I don't mind these at all really, everything we do is by the book and on the up and up, so we aren't worried about the result. If there are administrative deficiencies, we have an opportunity to correct them, so laregly no harm no foul. And we ourselves were very honest and direct about the source of problems with the IG staff, and were actually glad to have them involved.

But it did get frustrating at times, when we were ready and prepared to address concerns, sometimes encouraging Soldiers to come forward so we could take their case against higher commands, and they call the IG instead. Or call a Congressman. Or a reporter. Part of the problem was an IG relatively inexperienced, who gave a lot of attention to initial complaints, and of course part of it was our superior commander and some poor leadership on his part.

But my point was, that Soldiers should utilize (and usually can get better results)if they involve the Chain of Commmand and the NCO Support Channel (enlisted leadership). And when they draw the big guns, it wastes a lot of time and sometimes creates a result that is less favorable than what they could have gained through their immediate superiors. Sometimes, you have to give the system a chance.