MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to the podcast. We're talking to military blogger Matthew Currier Burden. He's the author of "The Blog of War," a series of front line dispatches, from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Burden is also a vet of the first Gulf War where he served in northern Iraq. Welcome, Matthew.
MATTHEW BURDEN: Thanks for having me.
HINOJOSA: We're talking to Matthew about the new regulations the Army has issued, ordering soldiers to stop posting blogs or sending personal e-mail messages, without clearing the content with a superior officer. Bloggers have been going on for you know a couple of years now, even with the war in Iraq. So why now?
BURDEN: Well you know during the invasion of Iraq, internet access was offered up to the troops. As sort of a morale boosting feature. Staying in contact with your family and friends. It's much easier to do your job in a war zone when you know everything's okay back home. People back home get to know that you're doing okay.
But it was sort of a Pandora's box. Because you have these internet generation soldiers that are bringing digital cameras, laptop computers, and instant messaging, doing podcasts, video blogging and all of a sudden you've got 120,000 of 'em in the war zone. And so then it becomes sort of a control issue. There's some define concerns about information being leaked to the enemy. You know specifically about damage after an attack.
We don't want to let the enemy know—how effective they've been. So 2005, a new regulation—actually an old regulation on operational security was updated to include blogging. And it went something like this, basically. You needed to tell your chain of command that you were blogging.
And then—your commander was responsible for reviewing the content on a quarterly basis. And if you suspected that you were going to publish something that might be of an operational security concern, for instance a route of a patrol, you know, other things that might give the enemy some indication of what's going on, that you would alert your commander before you publish it.
And you let them review your content. Now you get to 2007, and there's been a—what I would say is a C-change in the regulation. Which means that every single post that you want to publish has to get reviewed by your commander or an operational security officer.
HINOJOSA: Let me stop you right there, Matthew. Because one of the first questions that I had was, is this realistic? I mean, if you've got the potential of 120,000 bloggers, you know members of the military serving in Iraq, and you're going to spend the time and effort to assign someone to read every single one of them? I mean in—in the middle of a war?
BURDEN: See, this is the crux of the issue. This is why it's going to kill blogging. Because if I want to come back home and tell my mom on my blog that I just had a great meatball sandwich at my mess facility in Iraq, my commander's gotta say, yeah, that's okay. Burden, you can go ahead and publish it. He doesn't have time for that. You know? We're fighting a war.
HINOJOSA: All right, so do you think Matthew Currier Burden that essentially the military wants to throw cold water on these bloggers to say take it easy here. We're—we're watching you. We're concerned. And don't think that you're just gonna be able to do this without anyone kind of peeking over your shoulder.
BURDEN: What the military is doing by doing this is basically shooting itself in the foot because they're concerned about operational security issues. They're using that as the crux, to shut down military blogs. But I will tell you that—there's a recent study done on a blog by a Navy Intelligence Analyst who showed that the Pentagon senior staff leaks more information that's operational security—value than any other source.
HINOJOSA: Well let's just look at this from D.J. Elliott who's a retired Navy Intelligence Analyst. And he basically said, quote, "I get more advanced notice from a Pentagon press briefing of US movements from Kuwait into Iraq than I get from all other sources combined. The Pentagon acts as if it is not at war. And the leaks eliminating from Arlington are enormous."
BURDEN: D.J.'s right on the money. And what—usually what happens when I get into a discussion with a public affairs officer or even an operational security officer, about blogging, I will usually point to the DOD website or Army.Mil. And show them pictures that clearly violate operational security. In—in their definition. And so you know it—it's awfully hard for me to sit there and say, you need to come down on these bloggers.
When they themselves, especially the senior staff at the Pentagon are leaking more information than you know every other source combined. Let alone the—the tiny micro-chasm of military bloggers. That's where I get really frustrated with the military, especially the operational security officers. Are not understanding the consequences of what they're doing. And if they're really doing their job these leaks at the Pentagon that DJ Elliott spells out wouldn't be happening.
HINOJOSA: So is this a situation where the military is being proactive because they don't want to—they essentially don't want an Abu Ghraib. They don't want—perhaps that was photographs. But when you're talking about blogs you know it's information that essentially could end up damaging the military. Is that what this is about?
BURDEN: You know I don't think so. In terms of worrying about the next Abu Ghraib getting shut down I—you know, I don't know. Abu Ghraib really wasn't busted open by a blogger. You know, you hear a lot of the congressman talking these days about how America is not connected to its military. You hear that a lot. In a lot of different areas. And I—I just submit that military blogging is probably one of the last places where you can actually get a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a soldier in a war zone.
An American soldier. The truth is not coming out of Iraq through the media. The truth is not coming out through the military. And it's not coming out through the Bush administration. You talk to a Corporal or a Lieutenant or a Sergeant or a Captain on the ground, you get a completely different story than you get on CNN or the New York Times. But I would say that—you know the vast, vast majority are positive outlets. And—probably the best PR the military has right now.
HINOJOSA: But does the military in fact have a point? That you know these blogs, these emails actually really could contain some secretive information that could in fact compromise the safety of the soldiers?
BURDEN: Yeah. And absolutely that is a possibility. And it's something that I think everybody is concerned about. But the—but at the same time you know I think most of bloggers that have been—punished, and there's only been a few I think—over blogging it's—it's been for common sense issues. So I would—I would submit to you that if you blogged about your—your—you know executive news director in a negative light, you would probably be fired or disciplined in some way.
As—as would we all in our civilian jobs. If I blogged negatively about my wife, I would probably hear about it when I came home. I mean, it's just common sense. So you—you do have some of those situations. Where people might have done that.
HINOJOSA: So I want you to—to respond to what one blogger wrote in reaction to these new regulations. The blogger is Army Lawyer. He identifies himself only as a JAG attorney, but other than that he is anonymous. And he said, "No, the army didn't try to ban blogs. No, the army didn't backtrack. No, the army wasn't gonna be like some communist like organization where only approved information is uttered."
All the histrionic commentary to the contrary looks rather silly and borderline insulting. So when you hear someone saying this, look you know everybody's overreacting. You say?
HINOJOSA: Well I'd say I think—that comment is ridiculous. When you're a commander, and you have a question about operational security you're going to pull out a regulation that says you have to review every—every blog post before it's published. It's—it's in black and white. Now the army released a fact sheet that says that's not the case. Which is what army lawyers sort of—he—he's sort of joining the spin machine on this. And—army public affairs is doing the same thing.
HINOJOSA: And the spin, so clarify the spin.
BURDEN: They're saying that it's the same guideline as before. And that nothing's really changed. And this is in fact incorrect. Now I—I also want you to understand, that as a former military officer and as a soldier for 16 years, I have a definite problem bringing this up and fighting with the military on this.
But this is a definite—this is a definite untruth. That this fact sheet is in fact not a regulation. It's from the public affairs office. It is not from the operational security team. And this regulation still stands. And I've just gotta say—that when the army PR people say that you know regulations are for the guidance of the commander and they're not—they're not laws, I would say that's a ridiculous statement. Because anybody who spent any time in the military knows that regulations are—are basically adhered to.
And the one regulation that you do not take a liberal interpretation of is operational security. Because that might get people killed. And so by—by the army, an army lawyer saying that this is histrionics and this is not true it is bunk. It is completely false.
HINOJOSA: All right. So President Bush—just recently—attended—via—a prepared speech, a conference of military bloggers. He actually thanked the military bloggers for what they're doing. And he didn't mention these regulations. So it seems like there's two messages going out here.
BURDEN: Well the White House has a habit of not getting involved in the business of the Department of Defense. Particularly this administration. I don't know—I mean, you know I don't think he's going to comment on a specific regulation. He's going to let us fight it out in the media maybe. I think every blogger wants to—you know we don't want to get somebody killed over what we're publishing. But you know what we want to do—what I would like to see is have them—have bloggers have the same rules as embed reporters.
HINOJOSA: All right, well make those rules and regulations for embeds public for us. 'Cause most people who are listening to this have never been an embed.
BURDEN: Okay well that's a good point. But embed reporters are able to get the news out. They're able to tell a story. Embed reporters cannot give away positions. Cannot give away operational security concerns. Geraldo Rivera was bounced out of Iraq.
Because he gave away the position of the 101st Airborne during attack and during the invasion in 2003. And I think the embed reporter rules would fit really nicely with bloggers. We could get unit bloggers. You know? They're still allowed to tell these stories. They're still allowed to follow the unit and write about them. And I don't see why if the embed reporters are allowed to do that, why military bloggers can't do that as well.
HINOJOSA: All right. I want to ask you about a kind of inside baseball military story that you know well. But for those of us on the outside—it's very interesting. The story that was actually used by one of the—people who wrote the new regulations. In fact the major who wrote the regulation, the new regulations.
And he cited this issue of pizza orders. As an example of something that seems like it's not that important but actually could have huge implications. So what's up with these pizza orders? And what that has to do with security.
BURDEN: Well you know what his point is that late one night in January and 1991 the lights on the Pentagon were on. More than they normally would be at night. And that one parking lot was full of pizza delivery trucks. And that would indicate that perhaps there's some activity going on and during that time we were getting ready to invade Iraq we had probably half a million troops in Iraq.
And with ally forces and air forces and everything else. And war ships and things. And so that would give somebody the idea that hey—something's about to happen. You know that—that's a good point. On the one hand. On the other hand you know, somebody saying that—it's—it's a little too late to stop the—the momentum of what's happening over there as well.
I'd see it as kind of a ridiculous statement. Yeah. It indicates some things. But on the other hand—are you gonna prevent the next time this happens, nobody gets to eat the Pentagon? Everybody's gonna run around with flashlights? Nobody's gonna turn on lights at night to prevent that from happening? Or we're not gonna work at night. So I think in some cases they're taking a—myopic view of this issue.
HINOJOSA: So the typical blogs, you know perhaps again for our audience that may not necessarily be reading military blogs all the time. But you know let—can you give us like three that our listeners may want to just log on to?
BURDEN: Absolutely. Probably the best writer right now in the war zone is at acutepolitics.blogspot.com ad he's an engineer. His job is basically to go find IED's on the road. And either have them blow up on him so that no civilians are hurt, or disarm them.
Another one is called badger six. And badgersix.blogspot.com is a company commander in Iraq. Right now. You know his take on it is maybe from a little bit higher up than—acutepolitics. And then there's several more. And if you go to milblogging.com you can find them sort of by country. Probably the premier combat blogger and photographer is a guy by the name of Michael Yon.
And his is michaelyon-online.com. He he's got a fantastic blog. Lots of—it's media rich. Probably one of the last most purest voices you will probably get out of Iraq about what's happening. And he's also extremely honest about what's happening over there.
HINOJOSA: Now that one that you mentioned by Michael Yon essentially his take on all this is that bloggers who express independent views are somehow seen as a threat. While pro-military bloggers he says seem to be viewed as tools. He's quoted as saying "I've been threatened on numerous occasions, two threats in the last two months alone, to be booted out of Iraq."
BURDEN: I would probably disagree with some of that. He may be talking about you know independent bloggers that take a negative view of the war would get escorted out. I gotta say there's plenty of reporters that are taking a negative review that aren't getting escorted out. But I would tell you, whatever Mike says he's probably got some—firsthand experience. That's—that's making him write those kind of things. He's probably accurate.
HINOJOSA: So I want to ask you about when you know that three senators wrote a letter to defense secretary Robert Gates, basically criticizing the new security requirements. And they're saying, we are concerned, the regulations may also inadvertently weaken what has proven to be a significant asset in our media age. Firsthand accounts of American military men and women. When you've got senators who are kind of raising these kinds of questions, do you think that that—that can have some kind of an impact?
BURDEN: Well I think it does. I think it had an impact in the fact that we had the 2007—military blog conference in Washington, DC last weekend. And it was full of media. CNN, Fox, Washington Post, you know the typical you know the typical folks that would show up for something like that. To discuss these issues. But primarily because all of a sudden we're getting the interests of the President General Petraeus the senators on both sides of the aisle.
HINOJOSA: All right, so if there are people who are listening to us and they want to kind of get involved or they want to share their views, what do you think regular Americans can or should do about these new regulations?
BURDEN: I think and it's y regulation 530-1, which is operational security I would suggest you write your congressman. And ask them to ensure that military bloggers from the war zone are not censored. That they're not allowed, that they're not blocked.
Registering your blog is one thing. Keeping your commander informed about what you're writing is one thing. But having your commander have to review every single post, will probably kill military blogging as we know it.
HINOJOSA: And the name of your blog Matthew is?
BURDEN: It's blackfive.net and I was the author of a book called "The Blog of War" which captured about 54 bloggers experiences in and around the war.
HINOJOSA: Thanks a lot of speaking with us, Matthew.
BURDEN: Thanks for having me on your show.
HINOJOSA: To read an excerpt from Matthew's book, "The Blog of War" you can visit our website at www.pbs.org/now. You can also send in your comments about our talk with Matthew Currier Burden. At www.pbs.org/now. We'd love to hear what's on your mind. This program was produced by Karin Kamp. Until next time, on Now in the News, I'm Maria Hinojosa, and we'll talk to you again.