The case of the angry colonel

The Iraq war's top spokesman loves to dash off fiery complaints to bloggers -- unless someone's impersonating him. Do Col. Steven Boylan's claims of identity theft hold water?

Published October 31, 2007 5:50PM (EDT)

Is the military's top spokesman in Iraq a loose cannon who routinely fires off angry, impetuous e-mails to bloggers who criticize the war and the spin surrounding it? Or is Col. Steven Boylan, instead, an innocent victim -- an online wallflower whose identity has been hijacked by a pro-war hacker who has managed to break into the most well-fortified space on the planet in order to taunt lefty critics? Neither scenario paints a comforting picture of the situation in Iraq -- and even though the e-mails in question are coming from military servers in Iraq, the military seems strangely uninterested in solving the mystery of who is writing them.

During the past couple of days, variations on these questions have rattled through blogs on the left and the right. The buzz began on Sunday, when Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger here at Salon, received a long, invective-fraught e-mail that bore Boylan's return e-mail address, Boylan serves as chief spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, who heads all coalition forces in Iraq. Among other things, the e-mail labels Greenwald a "propagandist" who's "too lazy to do the research on the topics to gain the facts." Greenwald posted the letter.

After a few readers asked if the e-mail might be a fake, Greenwald sent an e-mail to Boylan asking if he had written it. Boylan denied it, and he did so again in a letter to Editor and Publisher, as well as to readers who contacted him. He has suggested that someone may have purloined his identity -- and, indeed, there is at least one documented case of a person impersonating Boylan via e-mail (more on that below).

On Tuesday, I spoke to several e-mail experts who have compared the disputed Boylan message with other letters the colonel has sent. The experts tell a clear story: If the message is a fake, as Boylan claims, it is a very well-done fake. Experts say that anyone who forged the e-mail to Greenwald would have had to find a way to get into the military's network, either physically (by having access to Boylan's computer, say) or through some kind of hack.

Every e-mail message includes a trail showing how it was routed through the Internet to get from the sender's computer to the receiver's -- this information is included in what's called an e-mail's "header." Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher and Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly provided Salon with e-mail correspondence they've had with Boylan. Headers on those messages, as well as headers on other messages that Boylan has sent to Greenwald and a Salon editor, match the header of the disputed e-mail -- they all show Boylan's messages coming through the military's computers in Iraq.

The header in the disputed Boylan e-mail shows that on its way from the sender to Greenwald, the message was routed through a machine with the address, a military machine. Peter Boothe, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Oregon, points out that this address is not an "open mail relay" -- a computer that lets anyone send mail through it. Instead, only computers internal to the military's network appear to be able to send mail through this machine.

After Greenwald posted the disputed Boylan letter, he sent an e-mail to Boylan's address asking the colonel whether he'd sent the original e-mail. Boylan responded, "Interesting and no." The headers of that e-mail show that that message, too, was routed through And when Boylan wrote to Mitchell that "I am denying writing and sending" the e-mail to Greenwald, that message came through -- another computer belonging to the same military network. Alan Schwartz, a professor of medical education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has co-written four books on e-mail administration -- including "Stopping Spam" and "Managing Mailing Lists" -- seconded Boothe's assessment. But he added that if the military's system administrators checked their e-mail logs, they could likely get to the bottom of the story.

I sent Boylan an e-mail asking if he had any idea about how someone might have filched his identity. I also asked about the scope of the problem -- has the fake Boylan sent out e-mails to anyone else? -- and what he and the military are doing to stop it. He did not respond.

What's most bizarre about this story is the military's determined inattention to it -- a man whose job is to be the mouthpiece for the war's top general is claiming that his words are not his own, and authorities are nonchalant. On Tuesday morning I called the Multi-National Force in Iraq, and I got through to Cmdr. Scott Rye of the Navy, the day chief of media operations. Rye had not heard of the controversy. He said that he takes Boylan "at his word" that he was not the author of the message, but added that he's interested in looking into whether someone has been impersonating the colonel. I sent Rye the disputed e-mail. He responded: "I'll share with the IT guys and see what, if anything, they can determine." I have not heard back.

Whatever the status of the e-mail, this much is clear: Boylan is no wallflower. Like any dedicated public affairs officer, he follows the debate surrounding his chosen P.R. field -- the war -- very closely. Less traditionally, he writes columns for the archconservative magazine Human Events, and he is enthusiastic about complaining to all manner of critics, from big-name reporters to bloggers of every stripe.

In 2005, when U.S. military deaths in Iraq hit 2,000, Boylan sent an e-mail to reporters that said 2,000 was not a real milestone. Instead, he said, it's "an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives." The real milestones, he countered, are "rarely covered or discussed."

In a May 9, 2007, column, Mitchell of Editor and Publisher pointed out that in a session with reporters, Petraeus had characterized a U.S. Army surgeon general report as showing that only "a small number" of troops in Iraq admitted they may have mistreated "detainees." But the report's most shocking stats concerned soldiers' mistreatment of "noncombatants," not "detainees." Ten percent of troops said they had mistreated civilians. Mitchell wrote: "Reporters should also ask Gen. David Petraeus ... why he lied in responding to a reporter's question this week concerning widespread abuse by U.S. troops."

This prompted an e-mail from Boylan: "I find it insulting that you would even consider saying that General Petraeus lied ... Because you don't agree with his words, detainee [rather than] civilians, you are saying that he has lied. I am not sure how you come to that conclusion that he has lied? Would you be willing to explain that?"

Mitchell wrote back, "Surely you understand the difference between a 'detainee' and a 'noncombatant.' Presumably Petraeus does as well. He said he'd read the report, where it clearly stated that the actions carried out by the 10 percent were against civilians or their property and without cause."

"I have not read the report," Boylan conceded in response, "but either way, to state that he lied is at a minimum disingenuous and at worst, flat wrong on your part without even asking the questions, but making unfounded assumptions ... "I expect better professionalism from someone of your position."

In September of this year, the Washington Monthly's Drum wrote that Petraeus had successfully mounted a "campaign with one overriding purpose: to convince politicians and opinion makers that we're making progress in Iraq regardless of whether we are or not." Boylan e-mailed Drum: "I read with interest your latest article ref General Petraeus ... and couldn't help but wonder why you chose to use false and inaccurate information without taking the time to do the further research and even contact us for the rest of the story."

In a later e-mail, Boylan elaborated on his disagreements with Drum. In the process, he criticized as "sloppy journalism" a Washington Post story on Petraeus' efforts to court members of Congress, and pointed out a minor error that NBC's Andrea Mitchell made in a report about Petraeus' discussions with lawmakers. (She said that Petraeus had met only with Republicans; Boylan wanted to note that Petraeus had met with members of both parties.)

But Boylan is not always so high-minded. Sometimes he'll write to a blog simply to make himself heard. In April, Boylan described an anti-American march in Baghdad that was organized by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as "progress," as it proved that Iraqis now enjoyed "the right to assemble." A fellow who calls himself "skank" and blogs at criticized Boylan's characterization: "Makes you want to scream, doesn't it?" skank wrote. Boylan popped into the comments thread to defend himself: "I guess you would rather have them shooting at us [as opposed to] marching saying that they want us to leave so that they can be united, which is what they were chanting. The sooner they unite and figure this out, the better for everyone."

In May, Boylan posted numerous comments at the left-leaning blog Democracy Arsenal -- click here, here and here. Earlier this month, he gave a lengthy interview to the Newshoggers.

The colonel is not the only outspoken Boylan. In September, his wife, Michelle, wrote a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star that began, "Wake up, America! Congress owes the military a public apology. Few are addressing the disappointing and disheartening behavior of members of the House and Senate, as well as various presidential candidates, during and after Gen. David Petraeus' testimony." She added: "We the People should not tolerate the personal attacks on the military and its key leader in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus." But she did not add that she is married to the man who speaks for that general.

In the fall of 2004, campaign reporters for the Los Angeles Times found Michelle Boylan and three Boylan children manning a Bush-Cheney phone bank in Wisconsin. "We're here because we think it's important to keep President Bush in office," Michelle Boylan told the Times.

But neither Michelle nor Steven Boylan had anything to do with a curious e-mail recently sent to an elderly Vermont man. Late in September, the Brattleboro Reformer, a newspaper in southern Vermont, reported that police had uncovered an effort to defraud 81-year-old Fred Humphrey, who was looking to rent out his vacation cabin in nearby Guilford. Someone claiming to be Lt. Col. Steve Boylan (Boylan was promoted to colonel from lieutenant colonel) had inquired, in a series of e-mails, about renting the cabin as a surprise present for his godson in England. The e-mailer even sent Humphrey a check for $3,000, $2,500 over the asking price, asking that the difference be remitted to an address in New York. Police contacted Boylan in Iraq and determined that he wasn't the fellow behind the rental request. The $3,000 check, unsurprisingly, turned out to be bogus.

Salon acquired the fake Boylan e-mails from Fred Humphrey. They originated with a gmail account and did not go through military servers. And as described in the Reformer's report, the fake Boylan's letters are "worded in rather stilted language" and missing key words. "It didn't seem like someone who had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel would write like that," Humphrey told the paper. They also do not read as if they were necessarily composed by a native speaker of English. A sample: "I WILL NEED YOU TO PLEASE FOLLOW THE FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS BELOW STRICTLY ... Try your possible best to expediate action to that effect."

The disputed e-mail messages to Greenwald -- as well as all of the blog posts bearing Boylan's name on the Web -- are not at all stilted. Indeed, they all share a strident tone, oozing confidence. In one of his posts to Democracy Arsenal, Boylan writes: "As to your question on what is my job? Very simply it is to inform the American public and to provide context and yes, to push back on incorrect or inaccurate information that is out there and to increase the understanding of military operations. It is called Public Affairs."

Boylan, who began his military career piloting Huey and Apache helicopters, has spent more than two decades in the Army. He long worked as a spokesman for the 8th U.S. Army in South Korea. Late in 2002, a day after a massive anti-American demonstration in Seoul, Boylan reported being set upon by three Koreans who cursed him in English; he sustained a minor stab wound.

He came to Iraq in August 2004, where, until December 2005, he directed the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad. Boylan spent all of 2006 as a spokesman for the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He returned to Iraq early this year as Petraeus' spokesman.

While in Iraq, Boylan has taught public relations to aspiring American flaks as an Internet course through the University of Phoenix. He told the university's newsletter (PDF) that he views his Army job as equivalent to managing a civilian company of 45,000 employees -- his job is as the vice president of public relations.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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George W. Bush Glenn Greenwald Iraq War