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Why is General Casey and the Army trying to declare defeat in the information war by quashing milbloggers?

Thursday, May 3, 2007
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HH: Joined now by one of the great milbloggers, BlackFive’s Matt Burden. Matt, good to talk to you tonight.

MB: Hey, thanks for having me on.

HH: Your first reaction to the Army’s new policy?

MB: Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

HH: And why do you think they did it?

MB: Well, I think personally, there’s a lot, there’s two factions within the Army. There’s…in the senior leadership, and you know, I’ll probably burn a few bridges right now, but you’ve got the General Casey faction, who just took over as chief of staff who signed the regulation, and you have this group, you know, sort of like the, and I’m sorry, it’s like the old, white guys CO club, where they like to control everything, they feel a little nervous about things that they can’t control, and then you have guys like General David Petraeus, who understands the information war that we’re losing right now, and understands the role the blogs play, and has told me so. So I know that there’s varying factions within the military. I know the sergeants get it, a lot of the majors in public affairs get it, but this is going to probably have the reverse effect. It’s going to have the exact opposite effect of what it’s intent is. And the reason for that is that you’ve got, say, 1,400 military bloggers, of which maybe three are under the radar, are negative, probably violating opsec, and you’ve got 1,397 guys who are now going to go mute, because everything they have to do has to get approved. If they write hey, I had a great sandwich in the mess hall today, their commander has to approve it.

HH: Yup.

MB: And so what this is going to do is effectively kill any form of milblogging, and you’re still going to have the guys who are trying to fly under the wire who don’t care if they get punished, and I’ve called them Article XV schleps before, the guys that are, you know, they just don’t care. And they’re going to end up getting a lot more attention, because the field, there’s a lot less noise out there.

HH: Let me ask you, Matt, this is only the Army’s policy, though, isn’t it?

MB: Well, it’s the Army’s policy, but guess who’s in charge of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is Central Command? And the Army’s policy tends to apply across the board in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So it’s going to apply to everybody in those commands. What’ll end up happening, and the Marines are sometimes more restrictive about it, what I’ve seen happen a lot with the Marines is that they’ll allow their soldiers, or their Marines to blog, and the Marines will probably be a lot more sensitive to what they’re doing than the soldiers are. So they usually aren’t a problem.

HH: Let me ask you, the Washington Post already has a front page of its internet edition story up on this. It quotes you, by the way, Matt.

MB: Okay.

HH: I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Reynolds of Instapundit, Powerline’s John Hinderacker, I and a whole bunch of others are denouncing this left and right. Do you think the Army saw the reaction coming?

MB: Well, they should have, because I have been talking to Army folks about this for a long time. And the paper that Major Elizabeth Robbins wrote, that was actually signed by, and won an award from General Petraeus, by the way, that’s linked in the Wired piece, it’s linked on my site at Black Five, and right now, I don’t have internet, so I can’t see if you’ve got it or not, Hugh.

HH: No, I haven’t seen it.

MB: You should, and it’s excellent. And the reason I found out about it, I was at the Pritzker Military Library giving a talk about military blogging, and I said basically, I think that military bloggers should have the same rules apply to them as embed reporters. You know, embed reporters can’t give away unit locations. Geraldo Rivera got bounced for giving away the 101st‘s location during the invasion. And they have very strict rules regarding operational security, too. But they’re allowed to tell the stories about the fight. And I think if you gave military bloggers, you could create a unit blogger, who would blog the unit history, who would be allowed to tell these stories. One of the biggest stories that you’ve never heard of happened on November 5th, huge battle in Baghdad. The first of the 26th Infantry out of the 1st Infantry Division, basically wiped out 100 al Qaeda in a huge running gun battle. Snipers were involved, it’s an amazing fight story that they won’t tell until they come home, because they’re not allowed to. And the reason you never heard about it, it was the day that Saddam was sentenced.

HH: Wow.

MB: And so there’s these kind of things that if you had a unit blogger that was allowed to tell these stories, it would be huge news. And oh, by the way, it might help us win the information war.

HH: Matt, can I keep you around for another segment?

MB: Yeah. I’m sorry. Obviously, I get worked up about this.

HH: Well, no. It needs to…the quickest time to reverse something like this is right away.

MB: Absolutely.

HH: If the Army realizes they’ve stepped in it, and then they immediately suspend the policy, convene a senior panel of brass and civilians, it might even turn into something good. They might even look at how their information war has not gone according to plan, if there was a plan. And hopefully, Senator Richard Shelby on this show earlier said we don’t want to do this, and if enough people call their Congressmen and said don’t put a gag on the soldiers, they’ll start asking questions right away. You can do that during the break. 202-225-3121. Non-partisan issue. Don’t gag the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are fighting the war. We’ve got to stay in touch with them.

– – – –

HH: Matt, before we go back to figuring out how to reverse this, could you explain to the audience why you think milblogging is so valuable to the information war, and to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?

MB: Yeah, absolutely, Hugh. There’s a couple of reasons, but I’ll just hit on probably the two major ones. One is you know how everybody, including a lot of politicians, talk about how the military and American society are disconnected. And military blogs are really the one place where an ordinary American can log onto the internet, and read about what it’s like to be a soldier in the war zone.

HH: Yup.

MB: It is probably the last place right now that somebody off the street American can actually find out what it’s like to be in the war zone. The other aspect of it is it’s probably the best PR that the Army’s going to get, or has gotten, has come out of the milblog area. It’s a way, it’s a place where veterans are reconnected, we’re a community, and we’ve been able to do a lot. The other aspect of it that we’ve been able to do a lot about is raise funds for charities like Soldier’s Angels, which you’ve been great about helping us raise money for too, Hugh. You know, it’s the community aspect as well. But most of the positive impact, most of the stories about the Iraqis, and how we work with the Iraqis, and a lot of the truth that actually comes out of Iraq, comes from military bloggers.

HH: Yup. What about the impact on understanding the war? I keep coming back to the fact, I linked earlier today to the Lawrence Wright Terror Web piece from the New Yorker a few years ago, on how the jihadists have this mastered. They pump information propaganda, and their view of the world, into the internet, 24/7, from a thousand portals. A lot of civilians try and put stuff up there, but the guys who know and the gals who know what’s going on are in uniform, and have seen the enemy face to face. It doesn’t compare. And there’s only one Michael Yon, there’s only one Bill Roggio. If we don’t have the milbloggers writing this stuff, it doesn’t get to us, because John Burns is about the only guy who leaves the Green Zone.

MB: Pretty much. That’s pretty accurate. And I would add probably Arwa Damon’s probably one of the most well-regarded reporters, and she happens to work for a network I don’t really care for. But CNN…

HH: Yeah, there are others. That’s hyperbole. There’s ten or fifteen, but…

MB: But right, but there’s…maybe. Maybe there’s ten. And absolutely, I agree, but also, they’re not giving the first-hand experience. You know, Burns is going to try to balance the article out, he’s going to try to say what else is going on, and how it affects Iraqis, which is important. But another facet of that is really what’s the soldier’s opinion. The other aspect of this, the part that really irks me, is the fact that a lot of the keeping the media honest pieces will be missing. So for instance, I happen to know in Anbar, because I have friends in Anbar, and you do, too, you just don’t know that right now, Hugh, and I could tell you about that off-air.

HH: Actually, I do know one Colonel Don in Ramadi, but I hope there are others.

MB: Well, you’ve had some guests on that I know of that are in the fight right now.

HH: Oh, cool.

MB: And they’re telling me that we own al Qaeda in the west, and that we have effectively shut them down, that the Iraqi politicians can’t wait for the elections, that they are working with us. And these are staff sergeants, sergeants first class. These are not full bird colonels, these are not careerists. These are the kind of people we need to be hearing from. And this is where the ground truth comes from. This is not, you know, and these are e-mails, these are posts, all this stuff, will be lost if this regulation gets enforced.

HH: Now what are the odds of it getting turned around?

MB: Well, having been a former military officer, knowing what kind of a juggernaut the military DOD bureaucracy is, and knowing that the head of the Army right now, which is General Casey, is probably not going to be very attuned to this, it’s going to take a lot of pressure, an awful lot of pressure. And it’s just common sense to me that if we want to win the information war, which we are almost about…you know, this is probably a surrender, in my opinion, to the information war.

HH: It is.

MB: The words…

HH: They don’t get that, though, Matt. They don’t understand this at all.

MB: There are a lot of people that do, but there are a lot of people that don’t. And there are public affairs officers that totally get it, and there are public affairs officers that absolutely don’t.

HH: Can I tell you a story? Today, I got a call, we got an e-mail yesterday from a Lt. Col. in Baghdad, saying would you like to talk to Brigadier General David Phillips about the Iraqi police? He’ll stay up until Midnight. We said you betcha, we’ll do it. First time I’ve had an e-mail like that in the course of the war. So we spent 30 minutes with him, he’s the guy in Baghdad setting up the Iraqi police, communicating with the public. Now you can’t do it just through that, but the blogs are part of that.

MB: Right. Well, you know the interesting thing is when I worked with Centcom, and I’ve done a lot of work with Centcom and Socom, and right now with Marine Socom, trying to get the stories out, trying to get them to understand web 2.0, and you know the sergeants get it. They’re 22. They grew up with this stuff. They grew up with the internet. A lot of the colonels don’t, and there are some good ones that have figure it out and understand viral marketing, understand the community aspect of it, understand that together, we can do more than apart. And a lot of them have started working with us. Centcom has done a very good job of trying to move that ball forward and get stories to bloggers, and work with bloggers on that side of the fence. But there are plenty of people who just don’t understand it, it’s a lack of control. I mean, in all due respect, General Casey’s probably the guy you want next to you in a dark alley in a fistfight. Absolutely. But is he the guy that should be figuring out where we need to move in the next 20, 30 years? Probably not.

HH: Did it get that high in the chain of command? Because it was a major who was announcing it today.

MB: Yeah. I mean, the major announced it, and he’s the one who wrote it, I believe, and I will probably butcher his name. I think it’s Ceralde.

HH: Yeah, something like that.

MB: I think he is the author, but Casey signed it.

HH: And do you really think they sat around and talked about this as an important thing? Or is it one of a billion pieces of paper that crossed the chief of staff’s desk?

MB: I…well, I don’t know much about the chief of staff, and that office. I do know that it’s, you know, basically, it really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the fight in the war on terror, it has more to do with paperwork and getting things done, you know, for the regular business of the Army. So it is possible that he probably didn’t read it, but I doubt it. And I know there’s quite a few officers, General Cody being one of them, who I admire, but also doesn’t get it, who was vice chief of the Army, who is absolutely against blogging, thinks it’s the biggest nightmare in the world.

HH: You know, we’re going to lose a generation…if this stays in place for five or seven years, you can’t get that time back. They’ll be so far ahead of us, the enemy meaning, in terms of information distribution, we’ll never get that expertise the milboggers would have brought us back. Gosh, that’s irritating.

MB: Yeah.

HH: Matt, good luck, and we’ll check in with you maybe on Friday. I’ll ask Tony Snow about it tomorrow as well, try to get it moving around the White House.

End of interview.

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