By Bill Gertz
Russia’s intelligence service hacks Democratic Party computer networks and puts out stolen emails in a bid to influence the 2016 election. China says it owns 90 percent of the South China Sea and begins building military bases under a vague historical claim to the strategic waterway. Iranian hackers break into American banks and a water control computer network at an upstate New York dam. Welcome to the new form of conflict in the 21st century: information warfare.
American adversaries have found asymmetric ways to attack and are waging sophisticated information warfare operations — both technical cyber-attacks and soft power influence and disinformation campaigns designed to achieve strategic objectives.
The U.S. government remains completely ignorant of the threat and lacks ways to deal with this new form of warfare. The Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the last semi-autonomous agency used for promoting America was disbanded in 1999. Its functions were folded into the State Department and the result has been diplomacy-impaired information programs.
The government also remains stuck with the 20th century role of “telling America’s story” while adversaries are spending billions on cable propaganda and other outlets are seek discredit and denigrate the United States.
There also are no effective institutions for countering lies and deception by foreign states. When pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014 launched a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile against a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet, killing all 283 people on board, Russia’s extensive propaganda Wurlitzer swung into action. RT, the state-run cable propaganda outlet successfully muted criticism of Russia by putting out sophisticated misinformation. The Russian narrative argued the jetliner was downed by a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile or by air-to-air cannon fire. Moscow even supplied forged satellite imagery found to have been taken from a video game to bolster its false claim that an air-to-air missile took down the jet.
The disinformation sowed confusion and doubt in the West. To date, Moscow has paid no price for its role in the crime.
For the past eight years under President Obama, the U.S. government largely ignored these new and increasingly sophisticated information warfare threats. The Obama administration’s operating assumption was that in the cosmopolitan world, nation-state enemies don’t really exist. The only real foes are the extremist terror groups like the Islamic State.
Yet the entire U.S.-led conflict against terror groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State has relied heavily on kinetic military and intelligence strikes while farming out to questionable Middle East states the ideological counter-ideological warfare programs designed to discredit the Islamist political narrative motivating terrorists’ campaigns of suicide bombings, beheadings, sex slavery and other atrocities.
“Cyberwarfare and influence campaigns that are being waged against our country represent a national security challenge of generational proportions,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats. “Our core values of truth, democratic principles, and self-determination are under assault,” Ms. Stefanik said at hearing on information warfare earlier this month.
Experts at the hearing testified that the U.S. government lacks an understanding of the threat posed by foreign information warfare, and also has no strategy for countering it.
“Continuing to get this wrong is a threat to our national security, to our economic growth and to our very standing as a world leader,” said Matthew Armstrong, a former official involved in government radio broadcasting and associate fellow in King’s College Center for Strategic Communications.
Mr. Armstrong said he was told by a Russian information official that state-run RT broadcasts would have no audience in the United States “if the American media was doing their jobs.”
The failure of America’s news media in this sphere stems of the Balkanization of news outlets. Coverage by mainstream press outlets today is biased by three central liberal narratives of gender identity, racial issues and climate change, while the conservative media outlets are heavily weighted toward opinion and lack a needed hard news focus.
By contrast, authoritarian regimes suffer no similar fate. They are focused laserlike on promoting propaganda narratives to support strategic goals. For China, it is managing Beijing’s perceived decline of the U.S. superpower. Stealing 22 million records from the Office of Personnel Management supports a covert Big Data program to target the United States for both espionage and influence activities.
For Russia, America remains the main target of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s vision of pursuing a pan-Eurasian Russian power that is embattled on all sides by a U.S.-led liberal democratic international cabal.
North Korea’s 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment over the ribald film “The Interview” aimed at attacking the film industry and choking off American freedom of expression by threatening with terror attacks movie theaters that showed the film. Meanwhile, Pyongyang was given free rein to develop nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems unimpeded — to perpetuate its crimes-against-humanity regime with a growing arsenal of nuclear missiles.
Iran’s information operations are designed to further the strategic goals of the Islamist regime, the world’s deadliest state sponsor of global terrorism, as Tehran works to emerge from the chaos of the Middle East as the dominant regional power.
Social media have emerged as another platform in the forefront of information warfare as terrorists use Twitter, Facebook and other outlets to recruit terrorists and spread propaganda.
These foreign information warfare programs are growing in both scale and sophistication while American public diplomacy and counter-disinformation efforts remain minuscule.
The Trump administration urgently needs to recreate a new USIA for the digital age, something I call “Information America.”
This new institution can be established as a government entity similar to the USIA, or a nongovernmental organization funded by philanthropists. A third option would be set up Information America as hybrid government/private-sector organization.
Its mission should be to use truth and facts to counter lies and disinformation. Information America also must begin anew to promote fundamental American ideals and values.
Outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper agreed on the need for a new information entity, something he recently called “a USIA on steroids to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than I think we’re doing right now.”
The first step should be setting up a blue-ribbon panel of information experts — government officials, journalists and others — to quickly formulate a plan for Information America.
The task is urgent in a world filled with violence and hatred. Effective information-based capabilities should become a top priority of the new Trump administration. These programs offer the promise of solving some of the world’s most pressing problems through the use of information as a strategic tool to promote peace and freedom.
— May 10, 2017
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and author of “iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age” (Threshold Editions, 2017).