My first encounter with OPSEC was frightening. It was the end of a summer that Sam had spent at sea. At his encouragement, I emailed the wife of one of his colleagues to see if she could help me to get access to the base to participate in a celebration welcoming the boat home. I contacted this woman, we’ll call her Stacy, with such a request, and in passing indicated that the return would be the following week. Within seconds, Stacy emailed me back, exhorting me never to indicate the boat’s movements over email or text. This was a serious violation of OPSEC, Stacy wrote, and not only did it endanger the men on the boat, but it made it possible for the navy to postpone the boat’s return. Her sentences all ended with exclamation marks.
I was upset. New to military life, I was sure that I had prevented Sam and I from seeing one another. I was also bothered by the tone of Stacy’s email. It was commanding, rather than something like, “Just a gentle reminder that they’re pretty strict about communicating information about the boat’s schedule over email or phone. Feel free to give me a call if you’d like to meet up and talk about plans.”
What made my sense of panic and loneliness worse was that there was no one to vent to. My friends were all outside of the military, and who within the military would not chastise me further?
Over a year later, in the middle of one of Sam’s deployments, I recalled this earlier sense of vulnerability when I found myself sitting alone in a hotel room in a foreign port city, waiting for Sam to come and meet me during one of his port stops. I wrote the following in my journal:
“I’m getting anxious. Sam was supposed to come in to port this morning. Usually after he comes into port, he calls to give a time frame for when he will be back. It’s already 8:30, and I haven’t even gotten word from him that he is in.
“I’m particularly nervous because I sent an e-mail to Sam’s boat address yesterday indicating that we would be together this weekend and that this togetherness would be in a foreign city. I was giddy because I had managed to get a major work deadline postponed in order to make it out here, and while I thought I was being discreet, maybe not.
“Now, with Sam gone and unaccounted for, I’m thinking, will he not come here to meet me because of something that I wrote?”
It strikes me that I never once thought that my email to Sam had endangered the boat’s security. I worried only that I had endangered my time with Sam. The navy, not some terrorist organization, was the threat looming in my head.
As it happened, Sam simply had not communicated his schedule as soon as he could have, let alone the fact that he had come into port, leaving me and my anxiety to rendezvous in a romantic port city that first day.
As I waited for Sam, I obsessively googled “Navy” and “OPSEC” to see if I could garner whether my e-mail constituted a violation. This brought up a series of military web sites and unofficial discussion boards. I was struck at the fuzziness at what constitutes “critical information” that must be kept away from internet or phone conversations.
For example, a navy power point on OPSEC and social media, ostensibly geared towards service members, describes as critical everything from “position, mission capabilities and limitations” to “names and photos of you, your family and coworkers,” to “hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc.”
A website entitled “navyformoms.com,” warns dramatically, “OPSEC is a process, but it is also a mindset,” and has a link entitled ominously “killing with keyboards.” The link contains absolutely no information about what this could possibly mean, except for a bizarre anecdote about one military family that uses zookeeper and animal metaphors to discuss the son’s work projects and interactions.
A Department of Defense web page called “OPSEC for families,” warns authors of blogs to avoid everything from “Military movement information, such as dates and locations” to “Unit issues, especially morale or dissatisfaction,” to “Pictures that could be interpreted differently than intended.”
How are these exhaustive, nebulous lists meant to be helpful to anyone interested in learning?
Then there is the ubiquitous warning on military and popular web sites alike, "Loose lips sink ships." As though families and their lack of discretion are the threats. Given the military's restrictive attitudes to criticism from within, this warning could be interpreted in a variety of ways.
You would think family members violate OPSEC all the time. It's all the powers that be warn you about: that woman who posted information about her husband’s return date on her blog, uttered it aloud in line at the local Burger King (gasp!), or emailed her mother with the dates of her spouse’s deployment. Yet the last time on public record that a US military submarine was actually attacked by another country was during WWII. Clearly, loose lips do not sink ships. War does.
I felt so many emotions as I waited for Sam in that port town: anticipation, excitement, love, and simultaneously, fear that I had prevented us from seeing one another. I realize now that there are countless reasons why the navy would cancel a ship’s return to port, not all of them necessarily legitimate, that I am not in control of most of those reasons, and that if they want a reason, they will find one, be it me or something else.