Under Guise of Operational Security, Air Force Looks to Chill Online Speech

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It was just last week that Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, sent a message to the field with the following guidance:

We all know 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on and off-duty, Airmen have signed up to live up to Air Force Standards and Core Values. Through all the different ways in which Airmen communicate and interact, respect and dignity are essential. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in person, by text, twitter, or the latest social media app, we are all personally accountable for what we say and post.

Welsh’s basic message was that “[a]irmen don’t have to worry if they’re doing what’s right.” But this doctrine, as many noted with considerable concern, fast-forwards past what should be the first question — when airmen are permitted to speak freely on their own behalf — and moves straight to a subjective assessment of the content of their private communications. Anxiety about this doctrine is not unwarranted given that senior leaders have hounded and severely punished airmen based on de-contextualized text messages culled from their private cellphones. 

Against this backdrop, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James shared a video on her official facebook page on October 30th, accompanying it with the following caption:

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But for airmen who click on the video, a product of the Secretary’s own public affairs team at service headquarters, the message received is only partially concerned with Operational Security (OPSEC).

Much of the message is concerned instead with controlling the content of social media posts and subtly coercing airmen to behave online as the Air Force prefers.

Watch the video yourself and see if you notice the clues, which are not obvious but nonetheless send a clear message.

Opening the mind through irrational fear is one of the most favored plays in the propagandist playbook. Note around 0:40 (after the laughably oblivious self-caricature of an Air Force publicist snapping a selfie and immoderately emblazoning it with #hashtags) the invocation of potential harm to the viewer and the viewer’s family unless they listen closely and obey what follows. While delivered with a smile by someone who seems non-threatening, this is coercive.

At 1:05, we’re advised that “even venting about a co-worker or bad-mouthing the Air Force in general has the potential to be seen by people you don’t want to see it.” What does this have to do with OPSEC, you ask? Nothing. It’s a veiled threat that airmen complaining about their jobs online could be disciplined by the chain of command. 

This warning is chased with the additional advisory that anything posted online, regardless of venue or privacy settings, should be considered public. Airmen who have come of age working with social media already understand this, so it smacks of senior officer meddling, but it’s also a sly way of putting airmen on a liability hook for unofficial communications. The offering a personal opinion online — even one that happens to confound official narratives — should not be a matter for supervisory review. But the Air Force under the current leadership clearly doesn’t agree, and is letting airmen know their personal opinions are subject to professional scrutiny.

But the real whopper comes at 1:46, when our trusty narrator tells us that what is posted on our personal social media pages should be “cleared for release” and “within regs.” This is an almost word-for-word recitation of the Welsh Doctrine, which generally holds that airmen have no expectation of privacy, and that what they say or post, even in their personal spaces, must meet Air Force Standards and be consistent with Core Values.

Of course, one of those Core Values, the first one, is integrity. It’s problematic that this video purports to be about OPSEC but is really a shady tactic, employed at odds with the spirit of integrity, to beat the drum of message control. Even more problematic is that Secretary James put her stamp of approval on the message and encouraged airmen to heed it. She apparently approves of this “Zero Privacy” doctrine, which effectively extinguishes any hope that it’ll be brought to heel before she and Gen. Welsh move out of their positions. This is bad news for civil liberties, and it is bound to create a service manned by careerists who don’t mind leaving principles at the altar of official approval. This makes it bad news for national defense.

This sort of approach is almost certainly not what former Secretary of Defense Robert S. Gates had in mind when he ordered the military services to open themselves to social media a few years ago. Then again, it was Gates who famously remarked that getting the Air Force to adapt is sometimes like pulling teeth. When it comes to championing the rights of its airmen and affirming their individual agency, dignity, and liberty, the service isn’t just resistant, it is recalcitrant, clinging to a Cold War propaganda model that would be right at home in the air forces of our adversaries.

Of course, this also represents a vain exercise. Social media will continue to democratize Air Force communications at all levels and will eventually force senior officials to be more effective, responsive, and accountable to their people and the public. This is a good thing. But the question is how many teeth will be pulled in the process, and how much honor will be hemorrhaged.

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