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Pentagon Runs Damage Control
Military Pretends New WWW Regulations Don't Restrict General Access
By SPENCER ACKERMAN 05/18/2007 6:54 PM ET
RAMADI, IRAQ - Soldiers go online at the Rock Hard Cafe.
Joe Raedle/Getty
RAMADI, IRAQ - Soldiers go online at the Rock Hard Cafe.

As crises go, the controversy over the Pentagon's decision to restrict access on DoD networks to thirteen popular websites doesn't compare to, say, the post-invasion looting in Baghdad or the Samarra mosque bombing. But much as those larger horrors caught the military command unprepared, the Pentagon appears surprised and embarrassed by the growing computer-network controversy.

Word of the guidelines made the front page news, causing such a cringe in first amendment experts and uproar in the blogosphere that the Pentagon called a press conference this week in an attempt to stem the criticism.

Defense Information Systems Agency vice director, Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight, emphasized the Pentagon's message to reporters that:
"It's important to point out that this directive does not prohibit any individual, including DOD personnel or their families, from posting to or accessing these recreational websites from their personal or commercial network providers. It only restricts the use of DOD computer network resources to access these sites."

The trouble is that, at least in Iraq, far more troops rely on the DoD network to get online than use the Internet from their own laptops, and non-DoD resources are probably not sufficient to sustain troops' usual amount of leisure time invested in these sites.

At Baghdad's Camp Liberty in early March, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation tent's Internet-equipped computer lab frequently had a waiting list for weary soldiers and airmen seeking to get online. A much smaller tent with seven stations for troops to plug Ethernet cables into their laptops for Internet access through a commercial scratch card always had space for this reporter when he sought to avoid the MWR wait.

If the wait to access non-DoD computer networks was sometimes prohibitively long in March, it's hard to imagine the new guidelines won't impact soldiers' everyday access to MySpace and other sites. But that doesn't seem of much concern to the Pentagon.

Q: Is DOD doing anything to facilitate more access through commercial providers in places where folks were using this bandwidth? Are you, you know, making it possible for commercial people to move in in greater numbers so that there are alternatives available beyond what had been available up till now?

ADM. HIGHT: No, we're not. And I, quite frankly, think that there is a tremendous market approach to whether or not service providers need to be where they need to be. So in other words, I think that commercial providers go where the demand is.

Like Iraq.

MySpace, in particular, is a favorite at Camp Liberty -- both to talk with loved ones outside of Iraq and with one another. Flyers hanging on the bulletin board of the MWR tent advertise soldiers' MySpace pages and urge gawkers not to be "shy about making friends." At least one computer at the MWR tent had its background screen set to advertising a MySpace-available mixtape of troops rapping about their experiences. And MySpace's chat function seemed to be enabled as a desktop shortcut on most stations in the tent.

The new DoD network ban on MySpace received an unexpected and unwelcome mention in the coverage of the three soldiers missing since Saturday. Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr.'s aunt told the Washington Post that her nephew had called from Iraq on Friday because the military had cut off his access to the MySpace account he used to keep in touch with his relatives.

Hight told reporters yesterday that the Pentagon might block "additional sites... in the future as part of ongoing efforts to ensure DOD networks have sufficient throughput available to conduct operational and supporting missions as well as enhance DOD network security." Yet when pressed as to how much bandwidth was really being expended by the use of the fourteen websites, Hight demurred:

Q: Are you able to put a rough percentage of how much of your bandwidth was being taken up by a recreational use from these sites, just to give us an idea of the proportion of the problem?

ADM. HIGHT: Well, I'll tell you why that's very difficult for us to do. We span the globe. We have over 5 million computers. And any number I gave you would just be an average of the world. So rather than mislead you, I'd rather not -- I'd rather not do that.

YouTube, BlackPlanet and other companies have said they will try to persuade the Pentagon to reconsider.

Coming on the heels of the recent decision to have restrict military blogging, many wonder about the new policy's impact on the information war. In a conference call yesterday, according to Noah Schachtman of Wired, Hight got the question head-on:

When asked whether these Internet-enabled troops are a valuable part of the information war against insurgents and Islamic extremists, Admiral Hight replies, "That's a great public affairs question. And I'm not a public affairs officer."

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