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Pentagon Troop-Morale Site Censors Political Messages

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The Defense Department has removed messages containing political commentary from a Web site designed for people to show their support for U.S. forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most of the postings at americasupportsyou.mil express love and encouragement -- "The greatest nation in the world is kept that way by men and women like you," reads one message from a family in Maryland -- without partisan asides.

But among the 60,000-plus messages were at least a few dozen -- located using the site's search function -- that equated troop support with backing the Bush administration's political goals. Still others lambasted Democratic politicians including Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass).

A message sent by Stephanie A. Chalkey of Oceanside, Calif., "aka: Proud Republican," said: "I thank you Mr. President for all you have done and standing up to the one's [sic] who don't believe in you. My theory is that if they don't like it here; we will pay their way out. Can you put that in the budget? :-)"

Another by Jan Stout of Las Cruces, N.M., said: "I show my support verbally in public and by donations to the RNC and reelect George W. Bush campaigns." Both of these messages, visible on the site two weeks ago, are now gone.

The decision to remove such messages reflects a policy posted on the site last week that warns readers that political speech will be barred.

"We are not including messages with political commentary -- pro or con," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant defense secretary and creator of the Web site. "Frankly, this a site to support the troops and thankfully, our men and women in the military volunteer to defend our country no matter who is in political office."

Previously, the staff used its judgment to decide which messages would be published, Barber said in an interview conducted before the policy was displayed on the site.

The messages are reviewed by college interns, but Barber said full-time staff members decide which ones will be posted online.

Since the new policy was adopted, many messages, including all those found two weeks ago by washingtonpost.com using search terms such as "George Bush," "RNC" and "John Kerry," have been removed.

At the time this story was published, several messages remained on the site that both support and oppose the Bush administration and the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Gary" from Flint, Mich., writes: "We very much support the troops serving but do not support the administration's handling of the conflicts where they are currently asked to serve. Please, bring them home as soon as possible."

"I verbally reinforce the actions of our administration when the occasion arises, which seems much more frequent than warranted," writes Robert E. Belville, Jr. of Beaumont, Tex. "I am a Viet Nam-era veteran who still despises the inappropriate actions of some during that conflict."

Posting political content on a taxpayer-financed, government-run Web site may not violate any rules, several experts said, but they warned that it creates an image problem.

The military "should not be seen as promoting a political agenda," said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics and former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission.

Jonah Seiger, co-founder of ConnectionsMedia.com, which develops online campaign strategies for Democratic candidates, said posting political messages on the site could amount to tacit endorsement.

The Hatch Act forbids federal employees from supporting candidates and being politically active in their workplace, but experts said it is unclear how it would apply to messages from the public on sites such as americasupportsyou.mil.

Nevertheless, "It's questionable if a government-sponsored site is expending both taxpayer money and government employee time solely to burnish one party at the expense of another," said Larry Purpuro, founder of RightClick Internet strategies, which develops online strategies for Republican campaigns.

Barber, the chief of Defense Department communications, launched the site last November.

It attracted mass attention when President Bush urged people to leave messages there during a speech he gave at Fort Bragg, N.C., in late June. According to the Web site, people have so far left more than 127,000 messages, of which more than 60,000 have been edited and published. The site also displays hundreds of messages from U.S. service people back to their supporters.

Previously, messages to the troops were rejected if they were deemed abusive or non-supportive, Barber said.

Defense Department officials removed at least two messages from the site last month, the Wall Street Journal reported. Barber's office also oversees American Forces Radio and Television, the Pentagon Channel, the American Forces Press Service, the Defense Department's Internet operations and the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

The American Forces Radio and Television service was the target of scrutiny last year after CNN reported that the government-funded network broadcast one hour of the "Rush Limbaugh Show" every weekday. Barber told CNN that the service also broadcasts 1,200 other programs, including selections from National Public Radio.

By Robert MacMillan and Mary Specht
washingtonpost.com

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