A digital backwater of stripes.com played host, apparently for months, to a rogues’ gallery of explicit ads for graphic and even illegal pornography, shady business ventures and under-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
Stars and Stripes detected the activity and quietly deactivated the site at the end of June, but a Google “cache” of thousands of its pages remained accessible. I encountered them July 6.
A reader had complained about a risqué photo in the July 3 newspaper. Nearby I saw a large-type caption containing a coarse term for flatulence. Such crudity prominently displayed in a Sunday family newspaper made me wonder how often that particular f-word showed up in its pages.
So I did a Google “site search” of stripes.com. Scores of references turned up on a sub-domain, forums.stripes.com, mainly in connection with hard-core porn advertising. Although not itself obscene, the term evidently gets included with more explicit buzz words that pornographers embed in Web pages to lure customers using search engines to find x-rated content.
All told, Google listed more than 4,000 pages containing boilerplate porn terminology on forums.stripes.com, which I understand was a prototype message board for stripes.com users created around 2009 and later abandoned. The sampling of pages I surveyed also contained explicit sexual photographs.
Although no one at Stars and Stripes may have been watching forums.stripes.com for a while, others certainly were.
A Google search indicates that at least as early as March, shadowy online businesses were using the site to tout all manner of graphic content, including child pornography, along with bootleg medications, love potions, dating services, and assorted scams and schemes.
The latest post I found was 3:22 p.m. UTC June 29. At that time, if the cached home page is to be taken at face value,forums.stripes.com had 31,976 “members” who had contributed 247,844 posts on 167,639 “topics” (use your imagination). It noted 18 “registered users” on-site, two identified as “bots,” or automated programs, and offered “birthday” wishes to four members.
Within an hour of this discovery July 6, I alerted Publisher Max Lederer by e-mail. He replied that staffers had noticed the content the previous week and had deactivated the pages. His note indicated Google would now be asked to scrub its cached versions. I e-mailed back a few questions so I could more fully understand the situation.
I wanted to know how all this had come to pass, how it had escaped notice for so long, who was responsible, what impact it might have on legitimate advertisers whose ads had run alongside graphic porn ads, and how it had affected stripes.com’s traffic tallies, which Web sites use in computing ad rates.
Instead of answering, Lederer accused me of trying to ambush-interview him. A day later, he e-mailed me to retroactively declare all our previous communications off the record because I had not formally stated my “reporting purpose in advance, as we require of all Stripes reporters.”
That was an allusion to a policy intended to avert situations in which Stars and Stripes staffers carrying Defense Department credentials might question or observe people in military settings who might not otherwise realize they were speaking to or in the presence of working journalists.
For a publisher to use that to justify avoiding written, e-mailed questions from his newspaper’s independent news ombudsman about a newsworthy matter just cannot be taken seriously.
The next day, July 8, Lederer e-mailed everyone at Stars and Stripes but me announcing that the paper was putting out a story about “a web test forum page that was inadvertently set up in a live environment that became a spam-bot target.”
He described it as a “playground” for automated spam programs, “virtually devoid of live visitors.” He neither accepted nor assigned responsibility for this having gone unnoticed and unchecked for as long as it did, but promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Although the ensuing news story was prominently displayed on stripes.com minutes later and atop the front page July 9, it downplayed the significance and scale of the breach, wrongly indicating the site contained only “links” to pornography, and largely absolved management, affixing the blame to unknown “outside spammers.”
“The site, hosted on a secondary server and not part of the newspaper’s stripes.com website, was believed to be inactive,” the story said. “Publisher Max Lederer said he does not believe that any foul play was involved; instead, it was simply an oversight in monitoring what was thought to be an inactive test page.” It added, “Lederer said administrators have found no evidence of illegal activity.”
“I’m not concerned that any real readers were viewing this site,” Lederer was quoted as saying.
I find it misleading to represent the sub-domain “forums.stripes.com” – which both Lederer and the story took pains not to mention – as “not part” of stripes.com. I find it similarly misleading to portray a well-trafficked and voluminous sub-domain Web site to a general readership as a solitary “test page.”
And let me suggest that months of undetected use of thousands of government-owned Web pages to graphically promote objectionable and, in the case of child pornography, illicit content is something more than an administrative “oversight,” strongly indicates the presence of some type of “illegal activity” on the site and warrants a thorough, independent investigation.
Consider that Stars and Stripes went to the Judge Advocate last year after software it had put on employee computers detected visits to gambling and sex sites (forums.stripes.com perhaps?).
More recently, when a reporter was suspected of anonymously posting comments favorable to his own work, the newspaper called in an “independent investigating officer” to take a “sworn statement,” according to the Pentagon.
Stars and Stripes further “took possession” of the reporter’s work computer for a “forensic examination” of its “data, metadata” and other contents by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. (The reporter was cleared, though the incident raises First Amendment issues for another day.)
Stripes.com is aimed not just at military forces downrange but also at their families and communities and, increasingly, at a domestic civilian audience. The sustained co-optation of any part of it by pornographers, pill pushers and scammers ought to merit at least as much investigatory zeal as the two incidents above and something more than an exculpatory “news” story that might easily have gone unreported at all.