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In this era of instantaneous information, all of us must be vigilant about guarding sensitive personal details. And that's especially important for military families, who must always think about operational security before making public even seemingly harmless tidbits.
"We have to build up this sense of guardedness, unfortunately, even in personal communications, [so] that exploitable information is not transmitted that an enemy can take advantage of and cause harm," said retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, in a recent interview.
He gave a hypothetical example of a service member deployed to Afghanistan who gets on a live Internet chat with his wife. She asks, "How are you doing, honey?" He replies, "I'm fine, I'm safe, but it's really going to be touch-and-go here for the next couple of days."
That may seem harmless, but it is "operationally important information" that an adversary "can tap into," Hayden said.
"I used to steal information for a living, and that kind of information is like gold," he said. "We spent an awful lot of energy to get that kind of stuff on an adversary. [Military families] have to be aware that this is not a very secure environment, and that a talented adversary can take advantage of it."
The issue of operational security is hardly new. When Hayden was stationed in Bulgaria during the Cold War from 1984 to 1986 as the Air attaché to the U.S. Embassy, he said his apartment was bugged.
"No question about it," he said. They had rewritable notepads "in every room," he said.
When Hayden and other staffers reached a point in a conversation that they would not want an adversary to hear, "we'd actually write it out on this pad, then show it to the other [person], lift the page, and it's gone."
Information is easier to come by now with the advent of instantaneous electronic information.
But Hayden said that doesn't mean you should stop communicating, or that you can't talk to your spouse in a candid way.
But he advises, "Just think about what you're saying. Try to keep in mind that the safety of the military member depends on your being discreet. Don't communicate things, or put him or her in a position to communicate things, that might make the mission more difficult."
That said, we're all human. What happens if you slip up?
"I'm not in any way suggesting people should punish themselves," he said. "Just say, ‘I'll remember that next time.'"
firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers is the wife of a military retiree.