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The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday 31 December 2020

General monitored soldiers' Web chat

Eavesdropping officer infuriated that troops shared gripes online

David Pugliese
The Ottawa Citizen

Soldiers beware -- the military's Big Brother is cruising the Internet, looking to catch you complaining about poor pay and leadership.

The army's inspector general, Brig.-Gen. James Cox, spent part of his time in 1997 and 1998 cruising the Web and dipping into public bulletin boards to monitor discussions about military affairs, according to Access to Information documents obtained by the Citizen.

He didn't like what he saw -- soldiers complaining to each other that they didn't have combat pants or boots or that their pay was the pits.

Incensed the troops were "spreading unfounded, unhelpful opinions" and rumours and were being unprofessional, Brig.-Gen. Cox started to send the names of the offenders to commanding officers so they could deal with the problem.

"There are some (and a growing number) who challenge professional standards of conduct and irresponsibly blurt out all manner of unfounded claims and accusations," he wrote to senior commanders in suggesting some kind of "cyberspace" discipline be developed for the military.

The only problem was that the soldiers were right. A month after Brig.-Gen. Cox fired off e-mails to the commanders with copies of the Internet discussions of some of their soldiers, the inspector general was told the "rumours" on the Net were true.

"The short of the story is that there is definitely a problem regarding the issue of combat clothing, field kit and combat boots," one officer informed Brig.-Gen. Cox. "You may recognize these 'facts' from the apparent rumours that we see on the Army Web page. The story we hear on the Net that troops are paying to have their combat boots resoled is apparently true."

Several months later, parliamentarians heard about massive shortages of combat boots, pants, shirts and other basic military items. Shortly after, a Commons committee traveled the country hearing similar horror stories about military pay, living conditions and equipment.

The Internet messages collected by Brig.-Gen. Cox, who left his position as Land Force Command Inspector several months ago, were tinged with soldier's wit and cynicism about poor leadership. One trooper in Edmonton was given a pair of combat pants two sizes too small because of shortages. "I guess I'll have to go on the Sarah Ferguson weight watchers program to fit into my new duds," he remarked in one message.

"It's a sad state of affairs when we don't have enough cold-weather kit to outfit our soldiers, " wrote another, who had to buy his own sleeping bag, boots and gloves.

Another suggested that the officers at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, who he believed were to blame for the problems, could be replaced with "trained monkeys."

In sending his concerns about the Internet messages to senior military officials, Brig.-Gen. Cox pointed out that soldiers, many who were only part-time reservists, are not free to speak their opinions in a public forum and that the Internet was such a venue. Military regulations require soldiers only to speak about issues they have direct knowledge about, and they are not to comment on political issues.

But some of the part-time soldiers, who figured their discussions were being monitored by senior military officials, didn't believe they were out of line. They were talking about problems in their profession and not disclosing classified information. At the same time, they stated in their messages they were talking as private citizens and believed they were not governed 24 hours a day by military rules, especially when they were sitting in their homes on their computers on their own time. "As reservists, we have a unique opportunity, spanning both worlds and in a position to contribute to the public debate," wrote one. "We have a responsibility to use it."

Brig.-Gen. Cox acknowledged that it might be difficult to crack down on part-time soldiers who were on the Net in their own time, but complained that reservists "tend to over interpret their right as a citizen to criticize anything and everything they want to."

The general warned senior commanders that the Internet had to be policed by the military, but that could prove to be difficult considering how widespread the technology was. "The future will see an increase in the use of cyberspace by all ranks, in all components. The need to protect our public image will therefore be all the more challenging."

He said that any problems with the military should be brought to the attention of commanders instead of being discussed on the Web. But some of the discussions on the Net pointed out that commanders had already been told about shortages in equipment and had done nothing.

In one Internet exchange, a retired officer defended discussing military affairs on the net. "This is a modern version of bitchin' at the bar and poking the commanding officer in the chest, and (a soldier) has every right to his freedom of speech as long as it does not imperil national security," he wrote in one message monitored by Brig.-Gen. Cox.

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