Basetrack program canceled

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LISA MULLINS: Monica Campbell who's been reporting in Afghanistan for a project called Basetrack. It's funded by the Knight Foundation. The reporters and photographers with Basetrack have been using the Internet and social media to chronicle the lives of the members of the 1st battalion Eighth Marines in Afghanistan until this past weekend. That's when the marines asked the Basetrack journalists to leave. Photographer Teru Kuwayama started this project last September. He is now back in New York. We aired an interview with you just 12 days ago Teru about Basetrack, but now suddenly as of this past weekend the news came that the plug has been pulled on your project. I want to hear all about that, but first can you just briefly tell us what Basetrack is all about.

TERU KUWAYAMA: Sure. Basetrack we've been calling it a media experiment, because I don't know what else to call it. We basically have a small team of embedded reporters and photographers who rotate in and out with the 1st Battalion Eighth Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan. They send out a stream of reporting, photographs, observations, interviews and we publish those on our website, and from there we push it out into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

MULLINS: And the primary audience is for the family members, friends of the marines who you're following.

KUWAYAMA: Right, that's the core audience.

MULLINS: OK so this has been going on as we said since the battalion has been deployed in Helmand province in Afghanistan. That was back in September. You had intended to stay with the battalion possibly through April, but looks like that's not going to happen. How come?

KUWAYAMA: Well it's pretty mystifying. And we don't actually know. We don't have a very clear picture on who it is who is pulling the plug on the embeds. And actually they won't even say that they're disembedding us. Because apparently for us to be officially disembedded we would have been determined to have done something wrong. So the language we received is that we are being asked to leave.

MULLINS: You got the language in a letter?

KUWAYAMA: Yeah we got a letter from a Public Affairs officer, a junior officer, [xx] another larger base in Helmand. I'm quite sure this didn't originate with this lieutenant. Who it did originate with we're not really sure.

MULLINS: The memo said that Basetrack was asked to leave ââ?¬Å?due to perceived operational security violations on portions of their website. These concerns are legitimate; specifically the website's tying to Google maps to display friendly force locations.ââ?¬  That's the end of the quote. So for you Teru, what's the response to these concerns, that you were basically mapping the location of the marines in various parts of Helmand province? They say that was unsafe.

KUWAYAMA: Well my immediate response was to write back and say if there's an operational security issue let's work together immediately together and resolve it, because we don't want to put out any information that would endanger any of these marines. But they haven't responded to that at all. The other thing too is that the locations of these bases aren't secret; they're not covert special forces, or CIA safe houses. These are heavily barricaded and highly visible outposts with blast walls and flags flying over them. They're not hidden at all. The other thing too is just the mapping that we do is offset. We were actually more concerned about revealing specific GPS coordinates than the marines were actually. So despite the fact that they had earlier complained that the GPS coordinates weren't accurate enough, we made sure that our system offsets the flags on the Google maps. So they show general locations, but they're not usable for targeting purposes.

MULLINS: OK, and that was the main concern, because one would think from the outside that if you are mapping where the battalion was, that by definition you could be compromising their security, because they could become targets. On the other hand, you're saying that it was offset a little bit, so it wasn't an exact pinpoint location. But also one would think that this would have been handled and cleared in the very beginning before you even got the go ahead. Was it not?

KUWAYAMA: Well this is the other very curious thing. I mean this website has been up for six or seven months now. It's curious that it suddenly became an issue now.

MULLINS: So do you doubt that's the real reason?

KUWAYAMA: The only thing that's pretty clear to me is that the stated reasons why we're being asked to leave are not true. I don't know what the real reasons are. And that's the thing that's quite mystifying. But it's not OpSec, it's not operational security. The other reason that we were given that there just simply isn't enough space for the Basetrack. And that is also clearly not true because there's other media organizations who have embeds right now with 1/8. And there's a couple more people on their way in. So something changed over the course of the last week and we don't know what it is.

MULLINS: So is the website going to stay up?

KUWAYAMA: Well until somebody at Public Affairs or at the Pentagon will tell us that there's a real reason to take it down, yeah, but they not really answering their email on that. So I don't know what to say, although I did immediately offer to work with them to mitigate any genuine operational security issues. But they don't seem to be interested.

MULLINS: We should say we put in some request for more information as well, and haven't heard back just yet. You seem to be rolling with the punches on this project. But does this outcome and it sounds like there's more to be told on this story, but does this constitute the equivalent of a failure of the project for you?

KUWAYAMA: If anything to my mind this constitutes the demonstration of a success. When I started this project off my biggest challenge was how do I demonstrate that it worked. And what I see is that we created a form of communication that seems to be widely popular with the families of the marines. The discussions that took place on Facebook and other social media sites were incredibly civil and well thought out, and somehow somewhere someone who doesn't want to identify themselves decided that there was something happening that was important enough that it should be stopped. I don't know how to demonstrate success better than that.

MULLINS: Thank you very much. Teru Kuwayama who started Basetrack which intended to follow the 1st battalion Eighth Marines throughout their deployment in Afghanistan. He spoke to us from New York. Teru thank you.

KUWAYAMA: Thank you.

MULLINS: And you can find more on Basetrack at theworld.org/basetrack. There is an online form there where two marines from the 1/8 battalion answered listen your questions.