Dispatches from FOBistan: The Army’s Woeful IT Policies Poison the War Effort

by Joshua Foust on 3/7/2009 · 7 comments

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — In January, when I first arrived here, I made an alarming discovery about the state of IT in the Army. Practically all of the blogs and other online tools I use to stay informed and connected to my colleagues (see here, for example) did not work. More accurately, they are deliberately blocked by a series of web filters, both automatically and manually constructed, in an effort to restrict inappropriate uses of the Internet from Army computers. This is a noble goal—I prefer that they block porn from office computers—but it is so unevenly implemented as to make me wonder what its real intent is.

For one, there is the messy issue with the word “blog.” While a lot of blogs could be classified as time wasters, simply banning that says “blog” in it results in some strange blocking selections, like the State Department’s official blog.


On a personal level, Registan.net is blocked. This is not an automatic block, as the category used in the reason line is “local blocks,” or it was manually added. Why an S6 would want to block this blog from being read on Army computers escapes me, but it is nevertheless the case. Many other blogs, including everything on blogspot, are also inaccessible. In fact, at first I was merely annoyed at such a state of affairs, as I can fake my way around these filters using my RSS reader. But when I noticed blogs like Jezebel were actually not blocked—and no offense to Jezebel, I enjoy reading it—I began to wonder: could there be a pattern to these blocks? So I began manually checking a lot of blogs that I read regularly, outside my RSS reader. The results are below:

Blocked on Army IT Not Blocked on Army IT
http://abumuqawama.blogspot.com http://blog.bouhammer.com/ (this became available in the last 72 hours)
http://easterncampaign.wordpress.com/ http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/
http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/ http://blog.wired.com/defense
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/stevecoll/ http://www.defensetech.org/
http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/ http://www.longwarjournal.com/
http://www.blogs.state.gov/ http://www.wonkette.com/
http://www.blackfive.net/ http://www.jezebel.com/ (and all other Gawker sites as well)
http://letusbuildpakistan.blogspot.com/ http://www.autoblog.com/ (and all other Weblogs, Inc. blogs)
http://www.twitter.com/ (and all other major social networking sites)  

I see no noticeable rhyme or reason to this, aside from some local blocks, like Captain’s Journal, that are deeply puzzling. But it also speaks to a deeper problem in how the military in general is approaching IT issues in the field: it makes absolutely no sense. Many of the blocked blogs are sources for deep, intelligent, and even essential analysis, news, and discussions. In fact, I only know they are blocked because I read them and see value in them. Moreover, when the Army’s own Command General Staff College is requiring its students to blog (how lucky they can actually read that news, as it is on SWJ), blocking other blogs, especially ones written by think tankers and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists of the very wars we are fighting, is nonsensical. The military wants to be relevant, it wants to be able to compete in the “information battlespace” (a wretched term I use only for simplicity’s sake), yet it cripples anyone’s ability to have situational awareness. It would be one thing if the Army were good at disseminating information internally, but they’re not.

As a result, I learn about suicide bombers hitting ECP-3 from my parents in the U.S. wanting to know if I’m okay. Yes Mom, I’m fine. I didn’t even know it happened, thanks to the terrible IT policies here.

I mean, I don’t get it. Does anyone? Does this make even a jot of sense to someone out there?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Rosemary March 7, 2009 at 10:59 am

Dear Joshua, The Army and the DOD allow my site to be read because I post most of what they put out in press releases. If you would like, just e-mail it to me and I will post it for you. I use the word site instead of that other word. lol.

This is awful. I read Matt’s site all the time. If you think it’s a good idea, I will cover what he says for you. I already e-mailed him about this posting. It upsets me very much that you are out there fighting for our freedom and Liberty and yet you are denied the same.

I understand the protocols. I have no affiliation with the NY Times, so you don’t have to worry about seeing any secrets on this site! Not that I’ve ever had any. If I did, I would deny it, but I have not. lol.

You take good care of yourself, please. Are you aware of Soldiers’ Angels? Do you have someone to send you letters and care packages? Let me know about that as well if you do not. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. I shall be praying for your family and you. God bless you.

Tadpole March 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

Wow, apparently things have really changed over there since ’06-’07. I was in Afghanistan and I was actively encouraged to blog while I was there by my Chain of Command. Near the end they were starting to block more and more things with websense, but they were not blocking too many blogs. I wrote most of my posts at http://www.armysailor.com from DoD computers. I would write them on my personal laptop, save them as a .txt file then upload them when I could get on a computer. I host my own site rather than using a service like blogger.

I would personally suggest that you take a look at (and maybe contact) the Electronic Frontier Foundation if you can get through to them (they may be blocked too). They may be able to at least help start some change over there. I’d also write to my congressmen.

Haole Wahine March 7, 2009 at 3:41 pm

As the bean counters move out, things suddenly start getting blocked. Trying to calm down a blogger, once, I said maybe it’s a good sign, that the things are considered calm enough for the bean counters to move farther out, but then there was the big incident at FOB Salerno — so much for that theory. LOL

It’s very difficult to see any rhyme or reason to some of the restrictions, but as “very much the civilian” I have that problem with a lot of military thinking and planning (or lack thereof).

Rosemary March 8, 2009 at 8:14 am

Hi. I just wanted to let you know that I’m having trouble with your trackback. Are you sure it is the one? Here is the error message:

/* —( HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Sun, 08 Mar 2009 13:12:28 GMT
Server: Apache/2.0.63 (Unix) mod_ssl/2.0.63 OpenSSL/0.9.7a mod_auth_passthrough/2.1 mod_bwlimited/1.4 FrontPage/ mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.4.3 PHP/5.2.6
X-Powered-By: PHP/5.2.6
X-Pingback: http://www.registan.net/xmlrpc.php
Status: 200 OK
Content-Length: 570
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8

Warning: include(/home/revrend/public_html//wp-trackback.php) [function.include]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/revrend/public_html/wp-includes/template-loader.php on line 8

Warning: include() [function.include]: Failed opening ‘/home/revrend/public_html//wp-trackback.php’ for inclusion (include_path=’.:/usr/lib/php:/usr/local/lib/php’) in /home/revrend/public_html/wp-includes/template-loader.php on line 8

/index.php/2009/03/07/dispatches-from-fobistan-the-armys-woeful-it-policies-poison-the-war-effort/trackback/ )— */

Private Snuffy March 11, 2009 at 4:43 pm

CENTCOM regulations clearly indicate that newsgroups, web blogs, and other public forum sites are prohibited unless approved by proper authority. There is an exception process which goes through your local Information Assurance Security Officer and works it’s way up the chain to the Designated Approval Authority. Regarding the posting of manually blocked web sites, there are numerous FRAGO’s, NTO’s, and TSO’s in effect that may direct blocking of particular web sites for various reasons. The mere fact that you’ve posted them to a blog site allows our adversaries Critical Information about our network defense posture.

Greyhawk March 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Bagram Air Base = Air Force, not Army. USAF has been using websense to keep Air Force eyes away from bad internets for years now.

Want a great ironic quote on the topic? Here’s a USAF spokesperson explaining what a “good” internets is: “”Basically,” said Maj. Henry Schott of the command’s plans and requirements section, “if it’s a place like The New York Times, an established, reputable media outlet, then it’s fairly cut and dry that that’s a good source, an authorized source.””

FWIW: I can confirm your site is not blocked on at least one Stateside Major Army Installation and most of the others you list are available too. (But B5 is blocked.)

jenniferro10 June 29, 2009 at 5:20 pm

May I “steal” your list, with citations, of course, for a paper on this topic?

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