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Tuesday, 29 April 2008

RAF technician deletes blog after criticising Condoleezza Rice's visit to Afghanistan

I used to follow a blog about the life of an RAF technician who services Chinook helicopters. He called himself "Sensei Katana" and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in January.
Just over a month later his blog disappeared without warning and now all you see when you visit his website is this.
According to the Ministry of Defence, Sensei Katana became "concerned" about his blog and stopped blogging.
Sensei Katana’s Blog
Sensei Katana's been blogging since at least May 2007. Although his website has been taken down, I still have access to some of his blog posts. They’re mainly about his everyday life with occasional references to his work in the RAF.
In December, he told readers that he was going to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. I was looking forward to regular updates over the next six months, but he only wrote four posts from theatre.
In his final post before removing the blog, he described how poor visibility nearly caused a Russian cargo plane to crash land into a line of British helicopters. But it was the post prior to this one that caught my attention.
Published on 10 February, it chronicled the visit of US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to Kandahar Airbase three days previously. She was accompanied by British foreign secretary David Miliband.
Sensei Katana wasn't too impressed with Ms Rice's visit offering her several pointers:
"Please dress accordingly – on a base full of people wearing nothing but camo/combat clothing, arriving [in] a business suit is going to stand out somewhat."
"Please don't tell the media what you're going to do until you've actually gone and done it and are now somewhere else. Like France."
The final point was a small detail about the arrangements made for Ms Rice's visit to the base. Sensei Katana claimed that this was broadcast on Sky and Al-Jazeera, was picked up by a local militia and inadvertently triggered a rocket attack on the base.

He concluded with this advice to the US Secretary of State:
"In short, next time you feel like coming here, don't."
Blogging Regulations at the Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence has strict rules about blogging and although I admired his honesty, I wasn't convinced the reaction to such a post would be too positive among Sensei Katana's senior commanders.
A document released in August 2007 states that military personnel are not allowed to communicate in public without the explicit consent of a commanding officer. This directive (2007DIN03-006) specifically mentions:
"Self publishing or otherwise releasing material on the internet or similar sharing technologies, for example through a blog, podcast or other shared text, audio or video, including via mobile devices’
In a reply to a Freedom of Information request I made earlier in the year, the MoD told me that these guidelines are:
"not designed to stop our personnel from blogging but instead to ensure that if they do blog, or otherwise communicate in public, about their work they do so in a way that ensures that operational security is upheld, and that standards of political impartiality and public accountability are met."
Why did 'Sensei Katana' stop blogging?
Sensei Katana did not have official consent to keep the blog, placing it outside the MoD's guidelines, and for a while senior officers had no idea he was blogging.
At some point, officers became aware of the existence of the blog. But I was told by a MoD press officer that before the officers spoke to the blogger, "he approached his chain of command to say he had been blogging but had decided to remove it".
The press officer added: 
"The individual in question was not forced to take down his blog by senior commanders and did so entirely of his own accord".
Sensei Katana did remove his blog, deleting it in its entirety without offering any post to explain this course of action.
So why did he do this? Although he had not spoken to the blogger in person, the press officer said:
"Sensei Katana realised that putting up some of the information was not a particularly sensible thing to do. He became concerned that he might cause harm by doing this and decided he did not want to play with fire."
Why are there so few British military blogs? 
Sensei Katana is, (or was), only one blogger, but his story begs the following questions: Do these same concerns mean other British servicemen don't blog? And does this episode help explain why there are so few British blogs written by military personnel?
Apart from the Commanding Officers of HMS Somerset and Nottingham, a blog by a member of the TA, and a new project with The Guardian, there arenĂ¢€™t many British milblogs. In fact, I challenge you to find another one that is updating from theatre.
After the launch of Lachlan MacNeil's 'blog' (note: there's no space to comment) in conjunction with The Guardian, Audrey Gillan wrote this article.
I thought she was going to address the key issue that her article hinted at all along “why are there so few British milblogs when there are so many US servicemen and women publishing their experiences?"
But she didn't. I don't really have an answer either but I am willing to offer a few more ideas.
It's not because the regulations are different. US military regulations on blogging (OPSEC AR530-1) appear to be fairly similar to those of the Ministry of Defence. Military personnel must:
"Consult with their immediate supervisor and their OPSEC (Operational Security) Officer for an OPSEC review prior to publishing or posting information in a public forum."
"This includes, but is not limited to letters, resumes, articles for publication, electronic mail (e-mail), Web site postings, web log (blog) postings, discussion in Internet information forums, discussion in Internet message boards or other forms of dissemination or documentation."
So what are the other possible explanations? One possibility is that the US military establishment is more open to the idea of allowing their servicemen and women to blog. Or better aware, perhaps, of the value of blogs to the military PR machine than their British counterparts.
But other factors are worth considering. Culturally, blogging is a much more established medium in the US than it is in the UK, and there are far fewer potential military bloggers in the British armed forces.
There are still more US personnel in Iraq (due to be around 140,000 by the summer) than the total numbers enrolled in the regular British Army (just over 100,000). It may simply be a case of numbers.
The Ministry of Defence and Blogging
In September last year, General Sir Richard Dannatt complained about the “growing gulf between the army and the nation’.
"When a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand, he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing, and why."
I assume the point Dannatt was making was that the people down the pub don't know much about what is going on. But this is hardly surprising. Apart from the occasional documentary, and the odd news report, we hardly ever hear from troops on the ground.
We only usually only find out about our servicemen and women when they are a silent face, or just a name, in a news report telling us of another casualty in a far off distant land.
And when we do hear from them, it is always through a tightly controlled media-military complex, a relationship made more prominent in recent times by the increased necessity of embedding journalists on safety grounds.
Maybe the need for operational security means it has to be this way. But it doesn't seem to be the case in the United States, where the public still receive regular updates from their blogging soldiers despite tighter regulations. (Here is my current favourite.)
If the British public had similar direct access to the experiences of soldiers through a blog, it might mean they could take a more active interest in Afghanistan and Iraq, enabling them to more closely identify with, relate to, and engage with those on the ground.
I wonder why, then, the MoD hasn't encouraged more servicemen and women to keep blogs and keep them within the rules.
Why, for example, did senior officers not suggest to Sensei Katana that rather than closing his blog down, he might like to carry on blogging in a more acceptable manner, within the MoD's guidelines?
After all, according to acclaimed US milblogger, Matthew Burden, military blogs are the "best PR the military has", providing a direct link between the front line and the home front “a key relationship to maintain in any war."

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