It looks like it is official: the United States Army thinks that American reporters are a threat to national security. Thanks to some great sleuthing by Wired’s “Danger Room” blogger Noah Shachtman, the Army’s new operational security guidelines (OPSEC) hit the Web in a big way yesterday, and the implications they have for reporters — who are grouped in with drug cartels and Al Qaeda as security threats to be beaten back — are staggering.


Make no mistake, this is a very big deal, and every American citizen, not just reporters and soldiers, needs to understand the implications of the Army’s strict new policy, because it directly affects how citizens receive information about their armed forces: information that it has every right to get.


Shachtman reproduces a slide from the new “OPSEC in the Blogosphere,” document, which lists and ranks “Categories of Threat.” Under “traditional domestic threats” we find hackers and militia groups, while “non-traditional” threats include drug cartels, and — yes — the media. Just to put that into some perspective, the foreign “non-traditional threats” are listed as warlords, and Al Qaeda. In other words, the Army has figuratively and literally put the media in the same box as Al Qaeda, warlords, and drug cartels.


While snake oil salesmen like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would surely rank the American press up there with Bin Laden and his homicidal ilk, for the Army to do so is shocking, displaying a deep ignorance on the part of at least some segments of the uniformed military over just what the media’s role in a democracy is, while sending the unambiguous message to soldiers and DoD employees that reporters are to be treated as enemies.


Under the new rules, all Army personnel and DoD contractors are told to keep an eye on reporters and anyone seen speaking to the press, and that they should “consider handling attempts by unauthorized personnel to solicit critical information or sensitive information as a Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the U.S. Army (SAEDA) incident.”


Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and director of the federation’s Project on Government Secrecy, raises some red flags about the new regulations, writing that the “sensitive” information as defined in the manual includes “not just vital details of military operations and technologies but also documents marked “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) that may be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” In other words, as he says, “it follows that inquisitive members of the press or the public who actively pursue such FOUO records may be deemed enemies of the United States.” [Emphasis ours]

Of course, Aftergood is only speculating, but his speculation falls well within the boundaries of what the Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the U.S. Army (SAEDA) manual describes as actionable offenses.


Under these guidelines, reporters digging for information about military projects, funding requests, new acquisition strategies, or other military-related stories could be blown in by an antsy DoD worker or soldier who doesn’t like the tone of questioning. That’s a pretty dangerous road to begin to travel for any country, and for the U.S. it’s simply unacceptable. We have no problem with the Army, or the Pentagon, keeping various things secret. In fact, we expect them to. But a reporter’s job is to dig for truth, and when the military begins throwing up roadblocks like these, everyone loses.


As a creepy little addendum to this whole sorry affair, we’ll quote what Major Ray Ceralde, the author of the new rules, told Shachtman in an interview yesterday: “A person doesn’t have to be in the military or government to support OPSEC…As a Nation, we are in this fight together, and all Americans are encouraged to practice OPSEC.”


In other words, it’s open season on curious reporters.

 

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.